Frequently Asked Questions / Short Answers

Q: What can we do with nuclear waste?

A: We can bury all of it, burn most of it as fuel and bury the rest, or send it into space. Option two is our personal favorite. Long-lived high-level nuclear waste is solid ceramic or metal, not green ooze. With proper care, it can be safely buried where it will stay out of our ecosystems. Go to the waste page for the whole story.

Q: What’s the difference between a nuclear reactor and a bomb?

A: Atoms capable of splitting are never close enough together in a nuclear reactor to release energy as quickly as in a nuclear bomb. Reactors use reactor-grade uranium, whereas bombs use weapons-grade uranium (info on this distinction). Additionally, bombs have chemical explosives designed to compress the weapons-grade uranium into itself. Under no known circumstances in our wildest dreams could a nuclear reactor explode like a nuclear weapon. Note: this doesn’t mean a reactor can’t physically have an out-of-control power increase resulting in major damage to the reactor building and releases of radiation, as happened in the Chernobyl accident. But this kind of excursion is honestly very nearly impossible in modern reactors. That’s another story.

Q: Is nuclear power renewable?

A: No, but. A renewable resource is one that naturally replenishes itself such as a tree. Cut it down, it will grow back. Use wind up, it will still blow. Uranium is not being produced on Earth so it is technically not renewable. BUT (and this is a big but), the term renewable is often used to convey a resource as sustainable. If we operated nuclear power plants with breeding, or using uranium extracted from the ocean (nearly unlimited, but very expensive), or using Thorium, then nuclear power can easily be considered sustainable. See an additional rant on these semantics.

Q: What’s a meltdown?

A: A melt-down occurs when a reactor heats up out so much that the fuel melts. This would happen in accident conditions, when the coolant has stopped flowing. The Three Mile Island accident was a partial melt-down, resulting in a economic loss to the utility company. When fuel melts, the core will shut itself down and will not melt through the earth to China.

Q: Do radioactive things glow?

A: In general, no. The green ooze stereotype is a fabrication of comics. Most radiation is impossible to detect without special equipment. However, when extremely radioactive material is placed underwater (such as in a nuclear reactor), it makes a blue glow. This is called Cherenkov radiation. It is an optical shockwave, like a sonic-boom, that occurs when charged particles (alpha particles, beta particles, fission products) are emitted faster than the speed of light in a medium. Since light travels through water slower than it does in a vacuum, this does not violate relativity. [Example]

Q: How long does nuclear fuel stay in a reactor?

A: A typical reactor cycle is 12-24 months, after which typically a third of the fuel is replaced with new fuel. Thus, the nuclear fuel stays in the reactor for between 3 and 5 years before it is discharged.

Q: What’s the difference between sodium-cooled reactors and molten salt reactors?

A: A lot! Even though table salt contains sodium, it is a much different material than liquid sodium metal. You can read all about liquid metal cooled fast reactors and molten salt reactors by clicking the links.

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