Note: The title of the post was changed at 5:12 PM CDT, June 29, 2017. The original title was “Toxic Waste From Solar Panels: 300 Times That of Nuclear Power.” Please see addendum for an explanation.
Guest post by David Middleton
Are We Headed for a Solar Waste Crisis?
June 28, 2017 by Mark Nelson
Last November, Japan’s Environment Ministry issued a stark warning: the amount of solar panel waste Japan produces every year will rise from 10,000 to 800,000 tons by 2040, and the nation has no plan for safely disposing of it.
Neither does California, a world leader in deploying solar panels. Only Europe requires solar panel makers to collect and dispose of solar waste at the end of their lives.
All of which begs the question: just how big of a problem is solar waste?
Environmental Progress investigated the problem to see how the problem compared to the much more high-profile issue of nuclear waste.
- Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.
- If solar and nuclear produce the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km).
- In countries like China, India, and Ghana, communities living near e-waste dumps often burn the waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off the plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled.
The study defines as toxic waste the spent fuel assemblies from nuclear plants and the solar panels themselves, which contain similar heavy metals and toxins as other electronics, such as computers and smartphones.
By Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson
Jemin Desai is an EP Fellow and a student at UC Berkeley. Mark Nelson is EP Senior Researcher.
Piling on a bit here… Nuclear waste can easily be safely disposed of:
Printed July 2009
Deep Borehole Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste
Patrick V. Brady, Bill W. Arnold, Geoff A. Freeze, Peter N. Swift, Stephen J. Bauer, Joseph L. Kanney, Robert P. Rechard, Joshua S. Stein
Sandia National Laboratories Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185 and Livermore, California 94550
Preliminary evaluation of deep borehole disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel indicates the potential for excellent long-term safety performance at costs competitive with mined repositories. Significant fluid flow through basementrock is prevented, in part, by low permeabilities, poorly connected transport pathways, and overburden self-sealing. Deep fluids also resist vertical movement because they are density stratified. Thermal hydrologic calculations estimate the thermal pulse from emplaced waste to be small (less than 20° C at 10 meters from the borehole, for less than a few hundred years), and to result in maximum total vertical fluid movement of ~100 m. Reducing conditions will sharply limit solubilities of most dose-critical radionuclides at depth, and high ionic strengths of deep fluids will prevent colloidal transport.
DOE estimates that 109,300 metric tons heavy metal (MTHM) of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel – primarily commercial spent nuclear fuel (CSNF), but also DOE spent nuclear fuel (DSNF), and high-level waste glass (HLWG) – will need to be disposed of in the US (the projected US HLW and SNF inventory is summarized in Appendix A).,Deep borehole disposal, characterization and excavation costs should scale linearly with waste inventory: small inventories require fewer boreholes; large inventories require more boreholes. Not needing a specially engineered waste package would also lower overall borehole disposal costs. Both aspects might make borehole disposal attractive for smaller national nuclear power efforts (having an inventory of 10,000 MTHM or less). In the US, the 70,000 MTHM of waste currently proposed for Yucca Mountain could be accommodated in about 600 deep boreholes (assuming each deep borehole had a 2 km long waste disposal zone that contained approximately 400 vertically stacked fuel assemblies). The remainder of the projected inventory of 109,300 MTHM could be fit into an additional 350 or so boreholes.
Because crystalline basement rocks are relatively common at 2-5 km depth (See Figure 2; also see O’Brien et al. 1979; Heiken et al. 1996), the US waste disposal burden might be shared by shipping waste to regional borehole disposal facilities. If located near existing waste inventories and production, shipping would be minimized. A disposal length of ~2km, and holes spaced 0.2km apart suggests the total projected US inventory could be disposed in several borehole fields totaling ~30 square kilometers.
Petroleum drilling costs have decreased to the point where boreholes are now routinely drilled to multi-kilometer depths. Research boreholes in Russia and Germany have been drilled to 8-12 km. The drilling costs for 950 deep boreholes to dispose of the entire 109,300 MTHM inventory, assuming a cost of $20 million per borehole (see Section 3.1), would be ~ $19 billion. Very rough estimates of other costs are $10 billion for associated site characterization, performance assessment analysis, and license application, $20 billion for disposal operations, monitoring, and decommissioning, $12 billion for ancillary program activities, and $10 billion for transportation, resulting in a total life-cycle cost for a hypothetical deep borehole disposal program of $71 billion (in 2007 dollars). Although there are significant uncertainties in the cost estimates for deep borehole disposal presented here, the estimated total life-cycle cost may be significantly lower than the estimated total cost of Yucca Mountain. Note in particular the lower construction/operation and transportation outlays that borehole disposal would allow.
This document outlines a technical and performance assessment analysis of deep borehole disposal of US HLW and SNF.
This is worth repeating:
The drilling costs for 950 deep boreholes to dispose of the entire 109,300 MTHM inventory, assuming a cost of $20 million per borehole (see Section 3.1), would be ~ $19 billion. Very rough estimates of other costs are $10 billion for associated site characterization, performance assessment analysis, and license application, $20 billion for disposal operations, monitoring, and decommissioning, $12 billion for ancillary program activities, and $10 billion for transportation, resulting in a total life-cycle cost for a hypothetical deep borehole disposal program of $71 billion (in 2007 dollars).
$71 billion (in 2007 dollars) to safely and permanently dispose of the entire inventory of 109,300 metric tons heavy metal (MTHM) of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel.
That would be $84 billion in 2017 USD.
According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy June 2017, from 1965-2016, US nuclear generating stations produced 26,386 TWh of electricity (26.4 trillion kWh).
$84 billion divided by 26.4 trillion kWh is $0.0032/kWh… 1/3 of one penny per kWh to dispose of the entire inventory of high-level nuclear waste.
If solar panels and the rest of the toxic waste associated with solar installations could be compacted in such a manner that they could be disposed of in deep boreholes, the cost would be greater than $1.00/kWh (300 * $0.0032 = $0.96 plus the cost of compacting the panels, etc.).
So… Why would anyone in their right mind prefer solar over nuclear power?
As if that wasn’t bad enough for solar…
While I personally don’t ascribe much value to the reduction of carbon emissions, the advocates of solar power probably do… Yet most of them oppose nuclear power and/or natural gas.
- Solar = 1/4 the availability of nuclear.
- Solar = $500,000/MW less valuable than nuclear in emssions reduction.
- Solar = 300 times the toxic waste per MWh compared to nuclear.
Addendum: June 29, 2017 5:00 PM CDT
The Energy Collective article doesn’t clearly distinguish “waste” from “toxic waste.” So, wherever the phrase “toxic waste” appears in this post, it probably should have been written as “toxic and/or other waste products.”