Why don’t we shoot our nuclear waste into the sun?

Short answer: Because it’s stupid expensive and it’s stupid dangerous if a rocket blows up on the launchpad.

Long answer: I’m genuinely curious how this idea entered pop culture because of how terrible it is. Sadly, it seems like it’s here to stay; a Google search for “nuclear waste to the sun” yields nearly 3 million hits.

Anyway, it’s a terrible idea. At the moment, the current cost of launching stuff into orbit is about $20,000 per kilogram of your payload. That’s just to get into orbit, that’s not counting the additional fuel kick needed to get your vessel going to the sun. Also, that’s not counting the fact we can’t really recycle these craft that are getting sent to the sun – most current rockets are designed to be reusable.

Now, consider that there are approximately 270,000 tonnes of fuel waste in storage, which is not even counting medical waste, or radioactive components from old reactors.

Now, consider that even one accident trying to launch one of these rockets means you’ve just splattered your nuclear payload of radioactive waste all over your launch facility, or worse, the upper atmosphere. Basically, you’ve caused another Chernobyl.

But can we design these rockets to be safe? Well sure, they’re all safe until they blow up. Spaceflight hasn’t had all the bugs worked out yet, and there are still have incidents on a yearly to monthly basis. That story was from last month. Fortunately, these failures generally only destroy an unmanned rocket, with a payload of a few satellites, in a big fire ball. Now consider that if even one of our “waste-to-sun” shuttles pop, we have just fucked up the environment for years.

All in all, we’re better off shooting them into the core of the Earth. Of course, by that, I mean burying it. It’s closer, and it’s less dangerous. If we’re lucky, sometime in the future, a clever scientist will work out a way to transmute those wastes into usable fuel cheaply, or at least accelerate the decay of the really nasty stuff so that it won’t be dangerously radioactive for too much longer.

 

I want to stress again how expensive this project would be. At $20,000 per kilogram, it would cost $5.4 trillion just to get this stuff to orbit. For the same price, you could map the human genome 2000 times, you could build 1100 Large Hadron Colliders, you could get everyone in the world clean water for 238 years, you could launch 36 International Space Stations, you could pay off a third of the national debt,  or you could fight one war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 


asked by /u/localhost87 with special thanks to /u/RakesProgress

cover image credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

 


 

 

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