Madi Hilly Profile picture
Jul 28 27 tweets 7 min read
My thread on nuclear waste seems to have touched a nerve!

Interestingly, most pushback has come from INSIDE the nuclear industry, not outside.

A follow-up on the physics & culture of nuclear waste, & why the industry has gotten it wrong for so long:
When people want to talk about the waste, they want answers to two questions:

1. Is the waste safe today?
2. Is the waste safe after the apocalypse?

Let’s start with the first.
The rule of thumb for radiation is as follows:

Short half-life means higher radioactivity (think spicier) but for a shorter time.

Long half-life means lower radioactivity (less spicy) but for a longer time. Graph illustrating the amount of time it takes for substance
Very short half-life products are of little concern here because, by definition, they've lost most of their radioactivity by the time the fuel rods have been sitting in water for several years.

Therefore much of waste management is dealing with longer-lasting fission products.
There are two categories of “waste” to deal with:

1. Fission products (atomic “fragments” lighter than uranium)
2. Transuranics (​​radioactive elements heavier than uranium)

Both types are contained within ceramic pellets that make up the fuel pellets inside of the fuel rods.
Fission products like Cs-137 and Sr-90 come from the splitting of uranium.

Fission products typically have shorter half-lives compared to transuranics. As such, they are responsible for most of the heat and penetrating radiation of the waste. A graph showing the radioactivity of typical spent nuclear f
Transuranics like Am-241 & Pu-240 are the result of uranium absorbing neutrons but not fissioning.

They usually have a long decay chain which gives them a long effective half-life. They don’t produce nearly the heat of fission products, but their radiation sticks around longer. A graph showing the radioactivity of typical spent nuclear f
Transuranics can be "eaten up" in breeder reactors, meaning they can become fuel and then fission products.

This would make the remaining waste short-lived compared to traditional spent fuel.
I asked radiation expert @ThatRadGuy5 about a worst case scenario: what if a cask got cracked open?

“If the cask were damaged, it would not be catastrophic. If anything, it would just lose its seal and lose inert helium gas. Essentially all material would stay contained.”
I urged him to use his imagination.

“It would not be a good day (an accident that was severe enough to damage a cask would need to be unprecedented), but there would likely not be harm caused by radiation, and the land would not really be affected.”
That gets to the heart of my 1st thread: there are many other materials that are more hazardous and that we store in less secure ways.

Anhydrous ammonia (used for fertilizer) is far more dangerous, but we make & transport millions of metric tons per year because it feeds us.
So we know the waste is safe today. When it's in casks, you can lie on it, stand on it, hug it, whatever.

Time to get to the doomsday question: what happens to the waste after the apocalypse?

Over the past 5 years, I’ve been asked about the following scenario MANY times:
"What if, thousands of years from now, someone comes across casks containing nuclear waste? Encountering them for whatever reason, from bad luck to curiosity. And what if they don’t read English but possess the brute power to cut through thick reinforced concrete and steel?"
You can’t understand this question if you take it at face value.

We already know that nuclear waste isn’t uniquely dangerous.

We've had written material passed along & understood for 4500 years, give or take.

Radiation detection devices are cheap and widely available.
But this post-apocalyptic scenario provides insight into how people think about nuclear power.

Folks asking this question are imagining there will be a “clean slate” apocalypse, which is almost always represented as a nuclear apocalypse.
*When people are asking this question, they are expressing their nuclear fears in the present by projecting them onto the future and onto the waste*
In many minds, there is no difference between nuclear power plants and nuclear bombs.

Cask of nuclear waste = small nuclear bomb
Nuclear plant = big nuclear bomb
Part of this can definitely be chalked up to the anti-nuclear movement (i.e. China Syndrome). Activists intentionally tried to falsely blur the line between the meltdown of a commercial nuclear power plant and the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Movie poster for the "No Nukes" documentary and co
But rather than pushback against the idea that nuclear power & its waste are uniquely dangerous, the industry internalized it!

Industry professionals will tell you the waste is safe. They will also tell you that we have to bury it deep underground or shoot it into the sun.
This is just another example of the nuclear industry trying to respond to social concerns with costly technological “solutions”.

But ironically because of the sheer cost and effort involved, those fears are *confirmed*, not diffused.
To be clear, this thread is NOT an argument to be less intentional about our plan for proper waste management!

It’s meant to demonstrate the problems that arise when you fail to differentiate between a communication problem and a science problem.
So what should we do with the waste, exactly? People in the industry complained there was no specific plan laid out.

I talked to nuclear energy expert @energybants to outline what the start of a good waste management program should look like.
First, continue the current system of assuring physical safety with dry-casks and monitoring. @energybants spending some quality time with spent nuclear f
Second, build public trust through facilities that manage either reprocessed waste or unprocessed waste in a visually compelling, accessible, and informative way.

@ThatRadGuy5, @energybants and I are all big fans of how the Dutch have pulled this off.
Next, put in place a deliberation plan. The Dutch have this too.

They plan to have a geological repository by 2100. Every 10-20 years they touch base on the issue. The result has been “we’re still doing research & watching the rest of the world, talk again in another 10-20.”
In this case, it’s responsible to wait! Everything about nuclear waste gets cheaper the longer you wait, making it the exact opposite of every other infrastructure project we work on.

And we know it’s safe today, so what’s the rush?
Lastly, we need to leave a fleet of working reactors for future generations. Maintaining systems and protocols makes things easier for everyone involved. And there’s the added benefit of abundant, reliable, carbon-free power.

Win-win! Double rainbow over the Byron Nuclear Power Plant in Illinoi

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More from @MadiHilly

Jul 26
Which way, western man? ImageImage
It’s not too late to learn from past mistakes.

There’s a growing movement of labor unions, climate scientists, and pro-nuclear environmentalists championing a new path towards a reliable, carbon-free future for New York 👇🏼
Thank you to @TomZambito for taking the time to talk to us and covering this important issue. He’s doing readers a great service.

Check out the full article here:…
Read 5 tweets
Jul 25
Hi new followers!

Figured I’d give a bit of background on who I am, what I'm working on, and why:
In 2017 I was finishing up degrees in EnviSci and PoliSci at Wisconsin (go badgers!) when I stumbled across @envprogress and reached out. @ShellenbergerMD took a chance on me, and I moved out to Berkeley a week after graduation to start full-time.
My first project was to do a comprehensive analysis of commercial nuclear power in the U.S.

I made a database of all built or canceled nuclear plants, along with timelines for each project. I learned a lot about factors driving the construction, cost, & regulation of new builds.
Read 10 tweets
Jul 21
MYTH: We don't have a solution to nuclear's "waste problem"

REALITY: Nuclear waste isn't a problem. In fact, it’s the best solution we have to meeting our energy needs while protecting the natural environment!

Here's what you need to know:
Nuclear waste concerns are overwhelmingly focused on “high-level waste”, which is almost entirely spent nuclear fuel.

Nuclear fuel is made up of metal tubes containing small pellets of uranium. These tubes are gathered into bundles for loading and unloading into the reactor. Image
After nuclear fuel has spent about five years in a reactor making energy, it's placed into a pool of water to cool off for another five years.

(Storage pool at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station) Image
Read 18 tweets
Jul 20
In today's installment of "Nuclear Regulation is Beyond Parody": THE TALE OF TOOMER'S CREEK

Years ago at Idaho National Lab, a small cask of spent fuel was being moved from the storage pool to the hot cell (a chamber for inspecting spent fuel)
The cask hadn't been fully drained prior to
its removal from the pool area. So the cask left a trail of dribbled water along the pavement.

Despite being theoretically safe enough to swim in, pool water is technically a hazardous contaminant. So it had to be dealt with.
The solution was to dig up *the entire path of the forklift*

The result? A trench 2 feet wide and half a mile long. The folks at INL called it "Toomer's Creek", an homage to the worker who was charged with making sure the cask was drained (lol brutal).
Read 5 tweets
Jun 30
I'm so grateful to @esaagar and @krystalball for having me on Breaking Points this morning to talk about Germany and nuclear power!

There’s a lot of info we didn’t have the chance to go over, but it’s really important for understanding these issues 🧵
On Germany:

Krystal pointed out that you can’t move away from fossil fuels with nothing else in place.

The thing is, Germany invested $580 billion in solar, wind, and storage in an attempt to replace their fossil fuels. Their failure wasn’t for lack of effort or investment!
@energybants and I did the math:

Had Germany invested in nuclear instead, even at the cost of the $12.5 billion per reactor cost of the U.K.’s Hinkley Point C., it would have had enough energy to completely decarbonize its electricity AND its entire light vehicle fleet.
Read 21 tweets
Apr 26
In one week, Netflix will release “Meltdown: Three Mile Island”, a four-part documentary about the accident.

I've created an issue brief anyone can use, print, share, etc:…

Communication around the show will be extremely important 🧵
Nuclear comms have been famously bad: slow, confused, and defensive. This appears to the public as dishonesty, evasion, and dirtiness.

TMI was no exception. The communication failure caused the extreme majority of harm from the accident.
Most of the people who express fear are not a) anti-nuclear zealots or b) stupid.

Especially considering the release of "The China Syndrome" two weeks before the accident, the prevailing misconceptions and fear are even more understandable.
Read 9 tweets

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