No. Nuclear energy produces far more toxic waste than solar.
Distribution of the fake news story
The fake news that began circulating at the end of June 2017 stems from a self-described "study" conducted by the nuclear industry advocate, Environmental Progress (EP). James Hansen, a nuclear proponent previously a lead in climate modelling at NASA, has unfortunately been dispersing this disinformation. In February 2018 he said he had been unaware of the method used to produce the graph he displayed. EP published the graph only in their blog, where they described their method: "The study defines as toxic waste the spent fuel assemblies from nuclear plants and the solar panels themselves." They used TrinaSolar module specifications, assumed a 25 year lifetime, and used the module's entire installed volume as the volume of toxic waste. For nuclear, they used only the spent fuel assembly. They arrived at the two numbers displayed in a bar graph and repeated in various articles and Hansen's presentation: 34,000 cubic meters per TWh for solar and 101 cubic meters per TWh for nuclear. (Deasi and Nelson 2017).
The blog was immediately embellished by several conservative news outlets, including SlashDot and the the National Review. Some articles added to the strange logic. One, for example, did a life cycle cost analysis comparing solar to nuclear by using the assumption that this solar panel waste will need to be buried in 2-5 km deep boreholes being considered for spent nuclear fuel. (Middleton 2017). Another article in the Daily Caller explained why solar panel waste should be considered more dangerous than nuclear waste: nuclear waste is radioactive and will therefore go away, while after 30 years on your roof, the solar panel module doesn't radioactively decay and will have to be disposed of permanently. (Follet 2017).
Toxic waste stream of solar PV
The majority of a solar panel module's mass is glass, which can be recycled. The steel housing is also recycled. The panel itself is usually silicon, which is also non-toxic and can be recycled into new semiconductor material. A fraction of solar panels use CdTe as the semiconductor material. Lead and silver are captured in the waste stream for all solar panels, but the cadmium is the most problematic waste generated by manufacture and disposal of solar panels is cadmium. Even for CdTe solar panels, nuclear power generates more cadmium waste on per-unit-energy basis. (Mulvaney, 2014) Manufacturers of CdTe panels monitor for worker safety and environmental emissions and have 0 incidents across ten years of US manufacturing. (Heard, 2014)
Even if you only look at cadmium and make the faulty assumption that solar panels will be disposed of instead of recycled, nuclear power generates more cadmium in waste than solar panels use in the entire manufacturing process. Nuclear power generates a wide variety of toxic waste materials, and one minor constituent is cadmium. Even as a minor constituent of the total nuclear waste, it is still significant compared to cadmium produced by other energy sources (Mulvaney, 2014):
- Coal: 3.0 g Cd per Gwh
- CdTe PV: 0.3 g Cd per Gwh
- Si PV: 0.0 g Cd per Gwh (or 0.9 g Cd per Gwh if manufactured with electricity sourced from coal)
- Fission: 0.5 g Cd per Gwh
Toxic waste stream of nuclear
While nuclear fission produces more cadmium waste compared to CdTe solar panels, cadmium is hardly the only waste from fission. Nuclear waste includes many categories of radioactive waste, all with different storage requirements. Spent nuclear fuel is a small fraction of total radioactive waste.
Nuclear power waste includes: (IAEA 2018)
- HLW (high-level waste) includes spent fuel and requires containment for tens of thousands of years
- ILW (intermediate level waste) radioactive wastes requiring containment for thousands of years
- LLW (low-level waste) "requires robust isolation and containment for periods of up to a few hundred years" but can be stored in near-surface facilities
- VLLW (very low-level waste) can be disposed of in special landfills
HLW is only 0.06% of the total radioactive waste, and only 1% of the HLW is solid, the portion of waste that includes spent fuel. So less than 0.0006% of nuclear waste is the spent fuel assembly, the only part of the waste included in the EP blog. Said differently, nuclear power creates 160,000 times more radioactive waste than the spent fuel assemblies alone. (IAEA 2018) Per unit of energy, this means nuclear produces 500 times the waste compared to solar panels, but only if you count the entire solar panel and ignore the waste produced by nuclear plant decommissioning.
Spent nuclear fuel rods must be contained for several thousand years. In the case of breeder reactors such as a thorium reactor, the 0.0006% of the nuclear waste stream that is spent nuclear fuel is recaptured. From the spent fuel, the plutonium is separated, introducing the additional hazard of nuclear weaponization. (Ford and Schuller 1997, p111)
Desai, J. and Nelson, M. (2017). Are we headed for a solar waste crisis? Retrieved from http://environmentalprogress.org/big-news/2017/6/21/are-we-headed-for-a-solar-waste-crisis
Follett, A. (2017). Solar panels generate 300 times more toxic waste than nuclear reactors. Retrieved from http://dailycaller.com/2017/07/01/solar-panels-generate-300-times-more-toxic-waste-than-nuclear-reactors/
Ford, JL and Schuller, CR. (1997). Controlling threats to nuclear security: A holistic model. Washington DC: National Defense University Press.
Fthenakisa, V. and Kim HC. (2010). Life-cycle uses of water in U.S. electricity generation. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 14. pp2039-2048. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032110000638/pdfft?md5=e76eb25e7a96a5886503e1aaf0d282d7&pid=1-s2.0-S1364032110000638-main.pdf
Heard, A. (2014). Response to Mulvaney. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718514001705
IAEA. (2017). Trend in electricty supplied. Retrieved from https://www.iaea.org/PRIS/WorldStatistics/WorldTrendinElectricalProduction.aspx
IAEA. (2018). Status and Trends in Spent Fuel Radioactive Waste Management. Retrieved from https://www-pub.iaea.org/books/iaeabooks/11173/Status-and-Trends-in-Spent-Fuel-and-Radioactive-Waste-Management
Middleton, D. (2017). Waste from solar panels: 300 times that of nuclear power. Retrieved from https://wattsupwiththat.com/2017/06/29/toxic-waste-from-solar-panels-300-times-that-of-nuclear-power/
Mulvaney, D. (2014). Are green jobs just jobs? Cadmium narratives in the life cycle of photovoltaics. Geoforum 54 pp178-186. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718514000281
World Nuclear Association (2017). Radioactive Waste Management. Retrieved from http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-waste-management.aspx