In this piece I really lay down the challenge for how we think about nuclear waste, drawing on the production and management of other waste types, comparing it to current and future management of spent nuclear fuel, including discussion of Generation IV reactors. This is one of my favourite pieces

The problem of nuclear waste has been solved. At least, compared to how we manage many other types of waste you are responsible for.

Perhaps more than any other single issue about nuclear power, we are continually bombarded with the message that the problem of radioactive waste has not been solved. This is not true; it has been. Well, provided you are applying approximately the same criteria to its management as you are for pretty much every other waste stream you are, in part, responsible for as a citizen of an industrialised society. In fact, if that is your yardstick, the challenge of spent nuclear fuel is more “solved” than nearly everything else. You just need to have a look around.

What would it mean for a waste problem to be “solved”? There is a hierarchy of options that can guide that answer. First and best of all, we stop producing the waste in the first place or if that proves impossible, steeply reduce the amount we produce. Industrialisation is replete with examples of efficiency measures and improved designs and processes that have either eliminated or steeply reduced the production of a waste stream. This is the ideal outcome: same desirable output, less undesirable by-product. By virtue of the fact that such outcomes generally improve profits, there is a pretty strong force behind these types of improvements on a continual basis, though they are invisible to most of us.

But waste still happens. When it does, we can regard it as a good outcome if we catch the waste at the source, undertake some treatment of the waste to render it less intrinsically harmful or less likely to be able to do harm by escaping into the environment, and store it securely. That type of process happens for some types of waste streams. For other types, we do things like engage in some treatment, and then “disperse and dilute” the waste into the environment so that it is spread around and less harmful. That may not sound great but, at present anyway, that’s life.

So let’s lift out heads up and take a look at a modern Australian life, and see what we find. Your household garbage is collected every week. Let’s face it, for nearly all of us the bin is at least half full. This waste is landfilled. Landfills are much better places than they were a generation ago (National waste Report 2010 Factsheet), but the basic principle still applies: Dig hole, fill with garbage, cover. The more recent additions to this process are things like improved design and construction of the hole including better base materials, planned management of leachate, planned management of landfill gases and Closure/Post Closure Management Plans addressing these issues adequately for new and the older cells (holes) alike. Something else we all know is that much of what goes into the hole will still be there in a thousand or so years. I’ve seen some plastics dug up after a few decades looking very sprightly. Other items shouldn’t be there at all, like your household batteries. But they and other hazardous post-consumer waste are there, guaranteed, leaching toxins with no half-life whatsoever; they will be just as toxic in future as they are now. The crowning glory on this process is that fact that there is no serious plan in place to change this. Recycling levels have improved, but annually Australia is landfilling about 13 million tons of household garbage (National Waste Report 2010 Factsheet), and over 20 million tons of waste in total, and there is no end in sight. The sector contributes about 11 million tCO2-e and that is not expected to budge (National Waste Report 2010 Factsheet). By virtue of our acquiescence and participation, our Government has the clear message that this is basically ok by us.

If this troubles you, I have news. This is roughly the same process for the treatment of some hazardous waste in South Australia. I quote:

Currently only one landfill is licensed by the EPA to accept waste treatment plant residues and other solid listed wastes (including hazardous wastes), which meet the criteria of the EPA issued licence…  At current filling rates this landfill has a capacity to accept waste for at least the next 20 years.

(Environment Protection Authority Hazardous Waste Strategy 2006-2010)

You’ve got it. For a great number of waste streams deemed hazardous, our strategy is to prepare a special hole, then fill the hole, cover, and manage. The major differences are a synthetic liner and better leachate management. If that troubles you, get ready.

Some things we produce can be neither safely treated, nor do we allow them to be disposed of this way. I am talking about organochlorine pesticides (OCPs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or general pesticides. These chemicals are as deadly as they come, and they don’t just disappear. PCB’s are a known carcinogen, a neurotoxin (think “snake bite”), and an endocrine (hormone) disruptor, with serious consequences for pregnancy if women are exposed in high amounts. They are also often liquid; they move. So, what do we do about it? Here is the South Australian situation:

There are presently no treatment facilities in South Australia for organochlorine pesticides (OCPs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or general pesticides.  EPA licensed facilities exist within other jurisdictions for the treatment of OCPs and PCBs. Unfortunately due to the physical limitations of the facilities OCP and PCB waste must be stored securely on a medium- to long-term basis until it can be treated… There are some wastes, such as OCP and heavy-metal mixtures that cannot be treated in Australia. These wastes are referred to as intractable wastes and are stored on a long-term basis pending the development of suitable treatment facilities within Australia or the attainment of a permit to export the waste to a country with a treatment facility.

(Environment Protection Authority Hazardous Waste Strategy 2006-2010)

Got that? We produce these uber-toxins and then store them with no end in site (pun intended). Other states can dispose some of them but their sites are already too busy, so we are stuck with it. Does that scare story sound familiar?

What about your car? Again, with few exceptions, in Australia we all either own one or rely on one. The efficiency of our vehicles has been improving steadily, but slowly, and we are putting more of them on the road. The engine technologies are improving, including devices that scrub the exhaust of some of the pollutants. But after that? We drive around relying on “disperse and dilute”. The failings of this approach are well known. Urban air pollution is a big health problem and cars are a big contributor. As for greenhouse gases from the tailpipe, the principle is downright unhelpful. Dispersed and dilute is exactly how greenhouse gas does its damage. Note that capture and storage is pretty much the antonym of dilute and disperse. Like landfill, there is no pathway for this to change.

Sure, some of us watch with interest as electric vehicles slowly penetrate the market. Meanwhile, 90,000 of us buy a new “dilute-and-dispersemobile” every month (ABS). It’s in the hands of the market. When EVs are cheaper and better, they will dominate. Until then, we happily accept the waste as a trade off for the mobility.

Dilute and disperse – a trade off we are happy to accept in the case of cars

The most pertinent comparison for spent nuclear fuel is, of course, the waste from fossil fuel combustion. Here is the annual waste from 2.2 GW of production at Loy Yang Power in Victoria. Getting these numbers was no feat of investigation; they are in the 2009 annual report for all to see, fully accepted by all:

So our current power sector produces wastes of various types in vast quantities, applying a mixture of containment but mainly using dilute and disperse which is, of course, the opposite of good for greenhouse gas. Note that this is not the mining waste. This is just from the power production.

Another waste source that somehow meets our expectations

What would happen if we added a nuclear reactor to this picture? Well, replacing that 2.2 GW of capacity in the Loy Yang would firstly eliminate all of the above waste streams. Instead we would produce about 10t of spent fuel per year, which would occupy about 30m3. Every bit of it would be captured, because it is neither liquid nor gas, it is ceramic, in a robustly contained reactor. It would be cooled for a few years in water, before being transferred to a dry cask. That is an innocuous term for something so strong you can hit it with a locomotive and just end up with a damaged train.

There it would sit, quietly and safely, going nowhere, leaching nothing, emitting nothing that is not easily blocked by the steel and concrete. All of this is costed into the price of the electricity.

There it is. Every bit of waste from the 28-year life of a 582 MW nuclear power plant in dry casks, complete with human beings in hard hats walking around them.
Click the image to visit Google Maps and see the relevance of a site like this in the landscape

A short way down the track we would take it out, reprocess it into fuel for an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) and recycle it to produce another 99 times the zero carbon electricity, displacing fossil fuels every step of the way. In the process we reduce the mass by about 99% and we reduce the half-life of the residual waste to about 30 years. We then vitrify (turn to glass) this minute remainder and give it a safe home for a very manageable period of time.

Is this perfect? Nah, it’s just pretty darn close. If you have a problem with it please, check your waste expectations; you will find that spent nuclear fuel is pretty much the leader. Using the “unsolved waste” argument to say no to nuclear power is dangerously misguided. We are forgoing the profound benefits of a scalable, zero-carbon form of electricity generation that could eliminate the devastating harm caused by the mining and combustion of fossil fuels. We do this in the name of a “problem” that is both temporary and also immensely smaller and more manageable than the status quo.

People may still like to throw the “unsolved waste” line at me do. Unless those people are living in a yurt, wearing skins and growing their own food, I suggest they put the moral high horse back in the stable and throw it an apple.

There is a scenario I often play out in my head in the event that we fail to reel in climate change. It’s me, listening to incredulous grandchildren who are facing a dangerously altered world,  saying: “Explain it again: What was the big problem with nuclear waste?”.

I have no good answer for them.


  1. Excellent article Ben. The waste issue has long been of concern to many, including myself, for all time. The comparison with the traditional paradigm is clever and telling.

    Perhaps it is time to lay out an overview of the nuclear option now available to us with appropriate links to more detailed explanation(s) of the various aspects involved.

    If nuclear power is going to get up in Australia then it needs a lot of bottom-up support, because it is clear enough that all (top-down) governments are unable to properly address environmental problems on any macro scale.

    1. Thank you @gmhendo. I could not agree more about this needing to be bottom up, at least to the extent that the politicians become aware that there is now social and electoral permission to look seriously at this issue.

      RE: Your suggestions, we (me and a few others) are a short time away from launching an exciting new site that should deliver on this in spades! I will let everyone know when it is up and running.

    1. Very good points. I have been given some private insights regarding that region from business parties who would really like to see the nuclear option available to give the region a future. Don’t give up.

  2. Where’s that neat picture of a small site somewhere in the eastern USA, showing all of the waste ever produced from a Gen 2 reactor, sitting there nice and stable? That’s a goodie.

      1. Furthering wilful’s comment, this is the site on Google Maps (,-72.484607&spn=0.003316,0.006968&t=h&z=18). Since that image above it appears to have added a couple more casks, and it is good to get a relative size to the house and cars nearby.
        Reading up on this nuclear power site (Connecticut Yankee) it may be pertinent to clearly state this is all the waste from a 582MW decommissioned reactor that ran for 28 years, as to not confuse between this and a 1GW GIII or GII+ reactor. These waste storage sites will depend upon the burn-up rates and efficiency of the reactor. Maybe another Google Earth search for these cask sites is warranted?

        1. Yep, and providing more detail in the caption would be wise. I will update accordingly. Back of an envelope, one might double site site to account for a 1 GW reactor, and double it again if that reactor delivers the full 60 years. We are still talking about something incredibly minor.

  3. Unless one or two of the big brown coal stations closes for good in Victoria we’re just playing silly buggers with climate policy. There is no sign that the big stations Loy Yang A&B, Yallourn and Hazelwood are closing anytime soon. Even the smaller units Brix and Anglesea have had their retirement deferred. This week Climate Commissioner Flannery suggested Victoria pursues more renewables. Since Victoria gets 92% of its electric energy from burning brown coal perhaps this is not quite seeing the forest for the trees.

    It is not enough for the baseload stations to run at slightly lower capacity; a couple of them need to be fully replaced with a low carbon source. That’s unlikely to be gas unless Gillard offers absurdly generous subsidies or intervenes in the east Australian gas market. A couple of summers ago Vic got to 48C at Avalon which if it happens again could increase public disquiet about brown coal. If so I suspect Gillard will make a hasty announcement on a big gas fired station which will either get deferred indefinitely or nixed by election defeat.

      1. Sure’ nuf Yallourn and Hazelwood are on that list. I think Gillard will have to announce something tangible by this time next year. I hope it’s better a than a copout like brown coal gasification with future ‘carbon capture readiness’.

        1. The only certainty seems to be uncertainty, hesitation, procrastination and abandonment of medium/long term energy & environmental policy. Ms Gillard herself is an uncertainty except that her tenure as PM is not likely to be extended, but that tenure may end prematurely – back to uncertainty.

          Where does the uncertainty go next? The greatest probability is that Tony Abbott will be elected PM at the next federal election. My expectation is that the Coalition will also tinker with the environmental settings but achieve little. Nothing coming from the present opposition suggests that they will bring any certainty to environmental policy. If they do manage certainty of any sort, it would surprise me if it also brought sufficiency.

          Cynical stuff I admit, but I do see some certainty if we shift to nuclear as long as it includes the various risk caveats. I am quite certain that if those risks are duly addressed then Australia (and other countries) can reduce their emissions by orders of magnitude.
          Nuclear, in almost a single step, can bring certainty and sufficiency to the quest for environmental sustainability.

          1. Based on the experience of the Liberal/national coalitions in Victoria and Queensland, what you will find from the incoming Coalition government will probably be quite shocking in relation to climate change and the environment more generally. The two State governments didn’t scare the horses before their elections, it was thought that they would be moderate. That is not what has happened subsequently.

            I believe Joe Hockey has said that the Department of Climate Change will be abolished. Not merged into the Environment department, but gotten rid of. So at least the Federal opposition are telling us more about their intentions than the state governments did. But no, expect to be outraged.

            I don’t think that the slightly increased chance of supporting nuclear power in Australia by the coalition is worth the trade-off.

            1. Yes right. More efen uncertainty. I don’t expect absolute certainty (except death & taxes) but seeking higher probabilities than we presently have is fair enough, and a perfectly fair and reasonable expectation.

  4. The fact that scores of people have been drowned or incinerated in extreme weather in Queensland and Victoria didn’t stop voters from electing anti AGW governments. PM Abbott is likely to say there are no problems with coal so keep digging. This is like Harper and the Conservatives in Canada making excuses for the environmental destruction from tar sands. I hold out a faint hope that Peak Oil will drag down coal burning.

      1. There have been plenty of critiques of Monbiot’s somewhat glib article. One detailed critic is Robert Hirsch who thinks the oil downslope will start in just a few years and we won’t be able to build NP fast enough.
        Centuries of coal reserves won’t help much if people can’t afford to drive, farm or deliver things. By ‘afford’ I mean relative fuel prices such as cheap diesel in a moribund economy. If Hirsch is right carbon tax and ‘contracts for closure’ will become irrelevant.

    1. Thanks very much. Once again I had the pleasure of bringing you information I myself did not know until I thought “Just what the hell are we doing with all our other waste anyway?”. Who knew that this “nightmare scenario” of “intractable waste” from a nuclear power plant that we are urged to be fearful of is happening now, has been happening for ages, with stuff that is way more dangerous and toxic, and NO ONE GIVES A SHIT?

      One day such things will cease to surprise me, but today is not that day.

  5. Victoria burns 65 Mt of brown coal a year which I presume creates about 3X as much CO2. If the price shock from the carbon tax works as planned I’d guess we could expect to burn about 3 Mt less brown coal by this time next year. The fuzzy modelling hopes the reductions will continue but I’m not sure. I think a 20 Mt reduction in Vic coal use by 2020 passes the fair dinkumness test but I doubt CT is the way to achieve it. Loy Yang say CT could double and they would still be Australia’s lowest cost generator.

    The smaller brown coal stations Brix and Anglesea wanted to die with dignity but the Federal government put them on life support instead. Then Marn Ferguson wanted Victoria to export brown coal pellets showing he has a keen appreciation of the AGW problem. Now Flannery seems to think windmills and solar panels will render brown coal burning unnecessary.

    Were I the dictator of Australia I would command Victoria to burn 30 Mt less brown coal by 2030 with nuclear allowed. If you don’t want nuclear then get out of Victoria because things could get a bit quiet from then on.

  6. Back to SA I’m trying to read a coded message in the 2 year postponement of the Olympic Dam expansion
    My take is that BHP are saying to Weatherill they want more freebies to smooth the way, the biggest freebie being energy costs such as a long term contract in which the gas price is kept artificially low. Remember SA now has one of the world’s highest electricity prices and this is the State’s best economic prospect. The predicted dry summer will add to the general gloom.

    I expect there will be another 2 year postponement after this one. Before 2020 there will be a lightbulb moment on how to supply power to OD.

  7. Great post Ben and brilliant title. The story with waste is just the same as the story with cancer. Most anti-nukes don’t know anything about other causes of cancer so figure radiation must be a big deal because it can cause cancer. Likewise most don’t know about other waste issues so figure radioactive waste must be a big deal. It’s like a story I read somewhere about an advertiser who was preparing a campaign for a beer company … he came up with a slogan, “Made with natural yeasts!” … the beer people objected because all beer is made with natural yeasts, and his reply was that nobody knows that. Similarly, tell people that radiation causes cancer and they are frightened despite plenty of common things causing cancer with far more potency but which nobody knows about.

  8. Great article. The waste question was the one that was bothering me the most. I remember being horrified by the prospect of Pangea digging a hole and dumping huge slugs of waste, glowing, like in the Simpsons. I wonder now how much of that was scare mongering. That said, I still was in favor of it back then. I have known a few under ground coal miners and know enough, that even if you dont accept AGW, nukes are still ahead. I lived in Traralgon as a kiddie. I just vescerally detest coal fired power. By contrast I just so love the Hydro in Tasmania. All that power and so clean. Well nukes are like that for flat dry places.

    I have been saying for years that all the Environmental lobbying was going to do great damage the environent. Kill what they claim to love. By spreading AGW porn they destroy thier credibility. It provides too easy a target for ridicle by reactionaries like Bolt and Monkton. People, though initially onside, will turn away in droves and give the Conservatives carte blanche to splurge into the fossil fuel, hole in the ground. I cant see anything else happening at the next election. Now I see there is a hope . I am really encouraged that influentail people are on board with the future in nukes.

  9. G’Day Ben,
    May I add my congratulations on another great piece. I particularly liked the reference to the locomotive test on the transport cask. I’ve used the same example in my third Ockham’s Razor talk which I recorded for ABC Radio National in Sydney recently. It will go to air later this year. Would you like to put it up on your blog? I’ve also done an OR on “Nuclear myths exposed.:” That could be of interest to your followers as well. Let me know if you’re interested. I’ll be using all three of my OR talks as the basis for my talk which I shall be giving to Adelaide and Gawler Rotary clubs in September.
    Cheers Ben

    1. Thanks Terry, this piece has had a good response. I wrote it pretty much on the spur of the moment after an idea came to me while running and I did a little research on toxic waste. Wrote it before my recent trip, it was sitting around for weeks!

      Please forward me the OR links when they are available, I’m very keen to have a listen.

      There is some great video vision of the train test out there. It’s a scream.

    1. Here is a more recent event. Chevron refinery fire in San Francisco:

      Quote from pictures:
      “Officials have told residents of Richmond and San Pablo to shelter-in-place as the fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond releases plumes of black smoke.”

      Shelter-in-place “meaning they should not only stay inside, but should also turn off heaters, air conditioners and fans, and to cover cracks around doors with tape or damp towels.”

      Where have I heard that exact same advice from? Nuclear weapon fall-out survival guides. Carcinogens are carcinogens doesn’t matter the source.

  10. I see that SA keeps building wind farms despite some cautionary considerations, The 270 MW Snowtown II wind farm will use turbines without gearboxes, However if you include the soon to be mothballed Pt Augusta coal stations SA wind capacity is already about 25% of installed nameplate generation (1202MW wind 3628MW fossil). Several empirical studies suggest there are diminishing CO2 savings after about 20% wind penetration. Secondly it is possible the RET could be abandoned after the review by Bernie Fraser at the end of the year. However the the public is in thrall to wind and solar so adverse findings seem heretical at this stage.

    It seems 34c electricity and prospective loss of major industries (Holden, OD expansion) ain’t enough for the penny to drop While Qld likes to compare itself to Spain I think similarly arid SA makes a better comparison with lots of fashionable wind and solar but a shrinking industrial base.

  11. Glowing claims about SA resources by mines minister Koutsantonis seem rather hollow
    If it takes water and energy to develop those resources then nothing will happen without those inputs. A couple of years ago Koutsantonis advocated a uranium enrichment industry for SA, then recanted and said gas was the answer to everything. That assumes you have plenty of gas.

    It’s a bit like saying you would win a swimsuit competition but your religion requires you to cover up. What I fear is that SA’s huge uranium resources will be gradually secreted away over decades for others to get the major benefits. SA gets the holes in the ground but other countries get the plum jobs and the low carbon energy.

  12. There’s no way under either Gillard or Abbott that SA would get a guaranteed share of dwindling east Australian gas. Henchman Ferguson has told WA to drop the 15% domestic set aside for natural gas
    I guess that means natural gas is like some kind of Magic Pudding whereby the more you use the more you find. In eastern Australia the Gladstone gas hub is like a Death Star that will suck in all the available NG and CSG for high priced export LNG. Those sources include Moomba SA directly but also the the Victorian on and off-shore basins indirectly. There will be no 400 km gas pipe to Roxby Downs.

    My question on notice to the honorable minister; is it conceivable that domestic gas could one day be too expensive? .

    (6 pm AEST must watch SBS Thalassa on how Sellafield threatens Norway)

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