What Produces More Waste Nuclear Or Solar?

Nuclear energy and solar energy, while both important sources of low-carbon electricity, produce very different types of waste products. Nuclear reactors produce spent fuel rods and other radioactive waste that must be carefully stored for thousands of years. Solar panels, while having a lower toxicity hazard, have a larger total volume of waste to manage at end-of-life, mainly from broken panels and associated electronics.

This article compares the types, volumes, storage solutions, and environmental impacts of nuclear waste versus solar panel waste. While nuclear waste is more hazardous, the extreme longevity of radioactivity makes permanent storage difficult. With solar, the concern is the sheer quantity of panels that will one day need recycling or disposal. Overall, nuclear produces more dangerous waste, while solar produces more total volume of waste.

Types of Waste from Nuclear

The main type of waste produced by nuclear power plants is radioactive waste. This includes radioactive fission products like cesium-137 and strontium-90, which can remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of years. It also includes heavier elements like uranium and plutonium, which have much longer half-lives and can remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years (1).

Used nuclear fuel rods are considered high-level radioactive waste. They contain uranium, plutonium, and other heavy metals that were not consumed during the nuclear reaction. These spent fuel rods are thermally hot and highly radioactive when first removed from the reactor. They emit so much radiation that a few seconds of exposure could be fatal (2).

Other radioactive waste from nuclear plants includes contaminated equipment, filters, resins, sludges, and cleanup materials. Low-level waste includes items that came in contact with radioactive materials, like mops, protective clothing, and lab equipment. Intermediate-level waste contains higher amounts of radioactivity and requires shielding during handling and transport (3).

In summary, the main types of nuclear waste are spent fuel rods and other radioactive materials produced as byproducts of nuclear fission reactions. These wastes contain dangerous radioactive elements like uranium, plutonium, and fission products that can remain hazardous for thousands of years.

(1) https://www.quora.com/What-is-nuclear-waste-composed-of-and-why-isnt-it-recycled
(2) https://fccid.io/prx/000/http//b09u511nou46.%D0%B0%D0%B5%D1%83%D0%B9%D1%86%D0%B2.%D1%80%D1%84

Nuclear Waste Volume

The volume of nuclear waste produced each year globally is relatively small compared to other industrial wastes, but it is exceptionally hazardous. According to https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28808842, the total volume of nuclear waste produced annually worldwide is around 10,000 tonnes. This seems miniscule compared to the 2 billion tonnes of industrial waste produced in the US alone each year. However, due to the intensely radioactive nature of nuclear waste, even a small quantity requires very careful handling and storage.

Nuclear Waste Storage

Nuclear waste requires special long-term storage methods and facilities. In the U.S., used nuclear fuel is currently stored at the nuclear plant sites in steel-lined concrete pools of water or in massive dry casks.

The U.S. government had planned to move the used fuel to a long-term underground repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but that project faced extensive delays and was ultimately halted in 2009. Currently, there are no long-term nuclear waste storage facilities operating in the U.S. (1)

Without a permanent repository like Yucca Mountain, nuclear plants have had to expand on-site storage capacity. Storing waste long-term at dozens of plant sites raises concerns over maintenance, costs, and security. The lack of a centralized storage site for nuclear waste in the U.S. remains an unresolved issue.

Environmental Impact of Nuclear Waste

Nuclear waste remains radioactive for thousands of years if released into the environment, posing serious risks. According to the Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution article, “Scientists warning on the ecological effects of radioactive contamination” (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2022.1099162), radiation leakage can severely impact natural and human systems. The American Chemical Society article “As nuclear waste piles up, scientists seek the best long-term solution” (https://cen.acs.org/environment/pollution/nuclear-waste-pilesscientists-seek-best/98/i12) states that nuclear waste emits radiation posing health and environmental risks for decades. Proper storage is essential, as exposure can lead to cancer, birth defects, and ecosystem damage.

Most nuclear waste remains hazardous for tens to hundreds of years due to radioactivity, requiring careful disposal and isolation from the environment (World Nuclear Organization, https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-wastes-myths-and-realities.aspx). Nuclear waste containment helps limit environmental impact, but accidents and leakage events can still occur, underscoring the need for safe, long-term solutions.

Types of Waste from Solar

Solar panels, inverters, and batteries can all contribute to solar waste when they reach the end of their usable lifespans. Solar panels are typically made of glass, polymer, aluminum, copper, and semiconductor materials that include cadmium telluride and silicon (Si) (Harrabin, 2020).

The most concerning aspect of solar waste is that some older solar panels contained heavy metals like lead and cadmium that can leach into the soil and water (South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, n.d.). Newer solar panels tend to use less toxic materials, but they still contain metals like copper, silicon, silver, and indium that require proper disposal and recycling.

Inverters, which convert the solar energy into usable alternating current, contain metals, plastics, and batteries. Solar batteries contain lithium, lead, cobalt, nickel, and cadmium. All of these materials require special handling when being disposed of or recycled (Solar Energy Industries Association, 2020).

While the amount of solar waste is still relatively small compared to other industries, it’s growing rapidly as more panels get installed worldwide. This makes it crucial to expand recycling infrastructure and processes to handle end-of-life solar components in an eco-friendly manner (World Economic Forum, 2021).

Solar Waste Volume

Solar panels have become increasingly popular as homeowners and businesses turn to renewable energy. As a result, a massive amount of solar panel waste is expected in the coming decades. According to an estimate by the Electric Power Research Institute, there will be around 1 million metric tons of solar panel waste by 2035, rising to 60-78 million metric tons by 2050 (1).

solar panel waste is expected to reach up to 78 million metric tons by 2050 as more panels reach end-of-life

This is because most solar panels have lifespans of around 25-30 years (2). As more panels reach the end of their lives in the coming years, the volume of solar waste will ramp up dramatically. While the waste per panel may not seem high at around 40-50 pounds, it adds up quickly when considering the millions of panels installed. Proper recycling and disposal will be crucial to handle this unprecedented amount of solar waste headed our way.

(1) https://hbr.org/2021/06/the-dark-side-of-solar-power

(2) https://www.epa.gov/hw/end-life-solar-panels-regulations-and-management

Solar Waste Recycling

There are a few options for recycling components of solar panels. The most valuable materials to recover are silicon, silver, copper, and aluminum. According to Greenmatch, silicon-based solar panels can be crushed and then immersed in chemical baths to separate the various materials [1]. The recovered silicon can be purified and reused to produce new solar cells. Powerhouse Recycling uses mechanical shredding and separation processes to recycle over 90% of certain solar panel components into raw materials for reuse [2]. They note that crystalline silicon panels represent the vast majority of solar panels sold today.

Some key components like glass, aluminum framing, junction boxes and wiring can also be removed and recycled. The glass from solar panels can be reused by glaziers or fiberglass manufacturers. Copper wiring and aluminum framing have high value for scrap recycling. Junction boxes, connectors and inverters contain recoverable metals as well [3].

Environmental Impact of Solar Waste

While solar panel waste is not considered hazardous like nuclear waste, the volume of solar panels being disposed of in landfills is becoming an issue [1]. Most solar panels end up in landfills because there is a lack of financial incentive and infrastructure to recycle them. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates there will be 78 million tons of solar panel waste by 2050 [2]. Putting millions of solar panels in landfills is problematic because they take up a significant amount of space and some components can leach lead and other toxic materials over time. While the environmental impact is relatively small compared to other industries, it is an issue the solar industry must address through improved recycling programs and processes.


Both nuclear and solar energy produce waste that must be properly managed to minimize environmental impact. However, the volume and toxicity of waste is much higher for nuclear. While solar panels do contain some hazardous materials, most components can be recycled. The toxic waste from nuclear remains dangerous for thousands of years and lacks a permanent disposal site. Overall, the evidence suggests solar waste has much less environmental harm than nuclear waste. Though nuclear can produce large amounts of carbon-free energy, the legacy of radioactive waste must be addressed. Renewables like solar offer cleaner options that are safer long-term.

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