A viral YouTube video recently discussed the age-old question “why don’t we shoot nuclear waste into space?”
It’s a topic we often get asked about on social media.
While the educational video’s cartoonish depictions of nuclear waste as glowing green ooze made some of our subject matter experts cringe, it’s clear that the content creators did their homework.
Here are the three key reasons why the Kurzgesagt YouTube channel says it’s just not feasible to launch our nuclear waste into space.
Problem 1: It Is Very Expensive
The video estimates that it would cost at least $100 million per year to launch one reactor’s worth of spent nuclear fuel into space.
With about 440 nuclear reactors around the world, it would cost around $44 billion per year to launch all of the world’s spent fuel into space.
These cost estimates do not account for launching the existing spent fuel that’s already in temporary storage.
If money wasn’t a concern, they say we still wouldn’t have enough rockets to launch all of our spent fuel into space. Entirely new space industries would need to be established—and it’s difficult to imagine this happening simply to address transporting spent nuclear fuel.
Problem 2: Space Is Complicated
The video explains that shooting thousands of containers of spent nuclear fuel into low Earth orbit could add to the millions of fast-moving and dangerous debris orbiting the Earth.
Any impact with the debris could damage or destroy a working satellite, creating even more debris.
Additionally, the Earth’s atmosphere will eventually pull back anything in low Earth orbit.
It would also be complicated to shoot the waste to a specific place like the moon, deep space, or the sun. The video explains that if we wanted to reach any of these places, we would need much bigger, more expensive rockets. (See problem 1)
Problem 3: Rockets Are Not Perfect
The video notes that 11 out of 146 rocket launches in 2021 were failures. This means that rockets carrying nuclear waste could explode during the launch or break apart and crash back down to Earth.
The rocket failures could lead to a release of radioactive particles. The particles would travel in the wind, falling either in the ocean or on land. These radioactive particles could then impact our farmlands and water sources and contaminate food and water supplies.
Overall, it is not worth risking rocket failures when we already have safe and secure ways to store spent nuclear fuel right here on Earth.
How Did the Video Creators Do?
Good for the most part.
However, the video suggests that most countries are dealing with spent nuclear fuel by “not dealing with it and kicking the can toward the future.”
What it does not mention is the significant progress countries such as Finland and Sweden have made in building deep geologic repositories for permanently disposing of spent nuclear fuel.
Canada has also made great progress in identifying a willing and interested host community for a deep geologic repository. They are now engaging with two potential host sites and hope to make a final decision in the next year or so.
Active programs for spent fuel management can also be found in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries.
U.S. spent nuclear fuel is safely and securely stored at more than 70 reactor sites across the country.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is pursuing a consent-based siting process to consolidate the nation’s spent nuclear fuel at one or more federal interim storage facilities as a near-term solution.
Consolidating the storage of commercial spent nuclear fuel will provide several benefits, such as reducing taxpayer burdens and promoting new jobs and economic opportunities.
Another option is recycling spent nuclear fuel since more than 90% of its potential energy stays in the fuel.
The United States is not currently recycling spent nuclear fuel, but other countries do. France safely recycles nuclear fuel from the country's 56 reactors.
DOE is supporting the research and development of advanced reactor designs that could use spent nuclear fuel to produce electricity.
So, the next time you hear someone ask, “why don’t we shoot nuclear waste into space?” you now have some extra background information as to why this is not necessarily the best idea.