Can We Launch Nuclear Waste Into the Sun? Why This is a Terrible Idea
We’ve got all this nuclear waste to dispose of, and we’ve got this superheated fusion ball in the sky. Couldn’t we just blast our nuclear waste into the Sun and be done with it?
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When I look at the Sun, I don’t see a warm life-giving orb, nourishing all living creatures here on Earth. No, I see that fiery ball as a cosmic garbage compactor. A place I can dump all my household garbage, to make room for new impulse purchases.
I mean, the Sun is right there, not doing anything right? It’s hotter than any garbage incinerator, and it’s the gravitational well at the heart of the Solar System. Get me a rocket, let’s blast that waste into oblivion.
Okay, I suspect it’s going to get expensive, so let’s just start with the worst garbage on Earth: nuclear waste. You know, the byproduct of nuclear reactors that generate electricity for many parts of the world. This stuff is highly toxic and it’s going to be around for hundreds of thousands of years.
It’s also pretty dense, maybe it does make sense to get this stuff off Earth and into the Sun?
Let’s run the numbers.
Nuclear waste, or radioactive waste, of course, is anything leftover material that still has radioactivity. For the most part, we get this as the leftover material from nuclear power reactors, but it’s also generated by hospitals, and nuclear weapons manufacturing. We’ve got leftover nuclear waste from uranium mining, radium processing, and various civil and military research projects.
For example, when you mine uranium from the ground, you get leftover radium and radioactive rock, soil, and even the water. When you power a nuclear reactor, the spent fuel rods are still highly radioactive and dangerous. In the United States alone, there are hundreds of different sites which are heavily contaminated, over thousands of acres.
According to the World Nuclear Association, OPEC nations generate 300 million tonnes of toxic waste every year. We’re talking about poisonous chemicals, medical waste, coal dust. Really anything that you don’t want anywhere near you, or inside you.
Just to give you a sense of scale, that’s a cube of toxic poisons nearly a kilometer to a side, assuming the stuff is a little more dense than water.
Out of this, only 97,000 tonnes of nuclear waste is generated across the planet every year. This is radioactive wastes of all types. That’s only .03% of all the toxic waste.
But for the purpose of our calculations, I’m going to zero in on the most toxic, most radioactive material we’re dealing with: the high-level waste produced by nuclear reactors. Now we’re merely talking about 12,000 tonnes per year, or 12% of the nuclear waste showing up on our planet every year.
Now, let’s look at launch costs.
Most rocket companies are going to charge you $10,000 to $20,000 per kilogram to blast a payload into Low Earth Orbit. The best deal on the market right now is SpaceX at around $4,000 USD per kilogram. And if they get the Falcon Heavy flying this year, it could bring the price down to around $2,500 per kilogram.
If all we wanted to do was blast all this waste into Low Earth Orbit, the calculations are pretty simple. 12,000 tonnes is 12 million kilograms. Multiply that by $2,500 per kilogram, and you get 30 billion dollars. You’re looking at 240 Falcon Heavy launches per year. Almost a launch every single day carrying a payload of high-level nuclear waste. Out of sight, out of mind.
That’s a lot of money, but in theory, the world could afford it if they wanted to stop having wars, or something. If they wanted to blast off all the nuclear waste, it would be more like 250 billion. Again. An incomprehensible amount of money, but still within the realm of possibility, assuming that SpaceX gets the Falcon Heavy launching, lofting payloads of nuclear waste 50 tonnes at a time.
But this is Low Earth Orbit, and we don’t want to go there. Anything in LEO still experiences friction from the Earth’s atmosphere, and eventually it’s going to return back to Earth. Imagine regular meteor showers of highly radioactive plutonium. That would be bad.
It would be more safer to launch this stuff into Geostationary Orbit, where the television satellites are broadcasting from. Material in this orbit can be expected to hang around for a long long time.
You’re looking at twice the price to blast off to GEO, so go ahead and double your costs to put that stuff safely out into space. 60 billion dollars for high-level waste. 500 billion for all the nuclear waste.