A 1,000-megawatt coal plant is fed by a 110-car coal train arriving every day. A nuclear reactor is replenished by a single tractor-trailer bringing new fuel rods once every 18 months. Over the course of a year, the coal plant will release 400,000 tons of sulfur and fly ash. Some of this ends up in landfills, but most escapes into the atmosphere where it kills 30,000 people annually, according to the E.P.A. Then there’s the carbon dioxide — seven millions tons annually from each plant — which is the principle cause of global warming.
By comparison, the “wastes” of nuclear power can once again be contained in a single truck. I recently watched one of these spent fuel assemblies being lifted into the receiving room at France’s nuclear reprocessing center in La Hague. It is an eerie sight — the most radioactive object in the solar system emitting double what you would have received standing at ground zero in Hiroshima. Yet a three-foot wall separated us, and the emissions didn’t even register on our badges. More than 95 percent of the spent fuel rod can be recycled. That is why France is able to store all its “waste” (from 30 years of producing 75 percent of its electricity) beneath the floor of a single room.
The most radioactive object in the Solar System??
Less than a mile from what is left of Chernobyl's ill-fated fourth reactor, a pair of elks is grazing nonchalantly on land irradiated by the world's worst nuclear accident. In nearby Pripyat, an eerie husk of a town where 50,000 people used to live before they were forced to flee on a terrifying afternoon in 1986, a Soviet urban landscape is rapidly giving way to wild European woodland.
Radiation levels remain far too high for human habitation but the abandoned town is filled with birdsong and the gurgling of streams forged by melting snow. Nobody thought it possible at the time but 20 years after the reactor exploded on 26 April 1986, during an ill-conceived "routine" Soviet experiment, Chernobyl's radiation-soaked "dead zone" is not looking so dead after all.