Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks during the Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit in New York, U.S., Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. The first-ever Earthshot Prize Innovation Summit brings together climate leaders to showcase transformative solutions , which restore and regenerate the planet.
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According to Bill Gates, nuclear waste is not a reason to avoid using nuclear energy Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist who recently founded the next-generation nuclear power startup TerraPower.
One of the common criticisms of nuclear power is that nuclear reactors produce waste that remains radioactive for thousands of years.
“Waste issues should not be a reason to abandon nuclear power,” Gates said in an interview with German business publication Handelsblatt published on Thursday. “The amount of waste, the possibility of geological absorption is not a reason not to engage in nuclear energy.”
The volume of nuclear waste is very small, especially compared to the energy produced, Gates said.
“Let’s say the US had all nuclear power, it’s just a few rooms worth of waste. So no, it’s not a giant thing,” Gates said. The cost of storing and sequestering nuclear waste underground “isn’t a big issue” because it can be put in deep wells underground “where it stays geologically for hundreds of millions of years,” he said.
By contrast, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning fossil fuels for energy is “something gigantic,” and sequestering that underground is a very difficult problem that, according to Gates, is “probably impossible.”
The U.S. Department of Energy classifies nuclear power as a “clean, zero-emission energy source” because generating electricity through nuclear fission produces no greenhouse gas emissions.
Currently, 19 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from nuclear power plants, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. According to the US Department of Energy, this accounts for about half of the US’s carbon-free electricity generation.
But after the boom in the construction of nuclear power reactors in the 1970s and 1980s, the construction of new nuclear generators practically stopped.
“The biggest hope for nuclear technology is that we can have a whole new generation — and I’m biased because I’m in it — where the countries that are committed to nuclear power will prove it and will show that economic security, waste management is handled,” Gates said.
“And then other countries that are less involved can look at it and see what they think, give a new assessment. And you know, that data won’t be there for almost eight years or so,” Gates said. .
The US does not have a permanent repository for nuclear waste
After decades of nuclear power generation, the US still has no permanent repository for nuclear waste. The closest the U.S. nuclear industry came to a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but that effort was stalled by political deadlock.
This undated photo taken on February 22, 2004 shows the entrance to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, located in Nye County, Nevada, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
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Currently, nuclear waste is stored in dry casks, which are stainless steel canisters surrounded by concrete. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the US’s main nuclear agency, considers these dry casks to be safe. The world’s first permeable underground geological repository is under construction in Olkiluoto, Finland.
In addition, not all nuclear waste has the same level of radioactivity. Most of the radioactivity is found in a very small percentage of the waste generated.
“The vast majority of nuclear waste is low-level waste,” Jonathan Cobb, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, told CNBC. “About 90 percent of the volume of nuclear waste produced is NAA, but it contains only 1 percent of radioactivity. This can include things like protective clothing, mops, filters, equipment and tools that have been contaminated with low-level radioactive materials. .. One common category of LLW comes from the use of nuclear medicine and can include tampons, injection needles, and syringes.”
Meanwhile, high-level nuclear waste, which includes spent nuclear fuel or higher-level waste from reprocessing, makes up “about 3 percent of the volume of radioactive waste produced, but contains 95 percent of the radioactivity,” Cobb told CNBC.