Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of electricity generated than nuclear power plants, according to a Thursday report from the pro-nuclear group Environmental Progress (EP).
The report found that solar panels use heavy metals, including lead, chromium and cadmium, which can harm the environment. The hazards of nuclear waste are well known and can be planned for, but very little has been done to mitigate solar waste issues.
“The problem with waste from solar is that it isn’t handled as well as nuclear waste,” Dr. Jeff Terry, a professor of nuclear physics involved in energy research at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “There are two types of waste from solar. Waste from the manufacturing scene and waste from the solar panel after it has gone through its useful life. There are materials in those that if they leached out, it wouldn’t be good.”
Terry said that waste from solar panels will quickly become a far bigger problem than nuclear waste, because power grids need dramatically more solar panels to generate the same amount of electricity as a nuclear reactor.
“The magnitude of the waste problem from solar is a lot larger than nuclear just because of energy density,” Terry said. “Per pound of waste generated, you get so much more power from nuclear. You need a lot more material to generate from solar and wind than you do from nuclear.”
Another expert worries that scientists and engineers have considerably more experience dealing with radioactive waste from nuclear reactors, but very little experience dealing with solar waste.
“All forms of energy create byproduct waste materials from their initial construction, operation, and eventual disposal,” Lake Barrett, former deputy director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, told TheDCNF. “Society has over 50 years of exhaustive scientific experience with safely managing and technical disposal of nuclear waste, but very little knowledge of renewable energy waste management and disposal.”
Terry said that solar panels use hazardous materials like sulfuric acid and toxic phosphine gas in their manufacturing. Recycling these materials is extremely difficult and the panels have relatively short operational lifespans.
“The chemical processing involved in manufacturing solar panels is significant,” Terry said. “Right now, we’re just offshoring it and placing the waste problem onto other people.”
Solar panels can’t be stored in a landfill easily without potentially contaminating the area and breaking the panels down for recycling is an extremely labor-intensive and unprofitable process.
“If you just throw a solar panel in a landfill, it’ll break down and cause issues,” Terry said. “People just aren’t dealing with solar waste yet and nobody has a real plan on what to do with these panels after they start coming off of houses. With nuclear, they entirely plan out how to use the waste and it is factored in.”
Solar panels are enormously difficult to dispose of or recycle. Japan is already scrambling for ways to reuse its mounting inventory of solar panel waste, which is expected to exceed 10,000 tons by 2020 and eventually grow to 800,000 tons per year by 2040. Additionally, most governments that heavily support solar power don’t require manufacturers to collect and dispose of solar waste.
Barrett also pointed out that nuclear waste with the greatest radiation hazard decays fairly quickly, while solar panel waste can remain in the environment for a much longer period of time.
“Nuclear wastes are radioactive and radioactivity is often scary to those who do not understand it,” Barrett said. “With time, nuclear wastes naturally decay away to benign levels in a few hundred or few thousand years. Heavy metal wastes, as often found in renewable energy wastes, never decay away and can remain toxic in the environment forever.”
In comparison, nuclear waste can often be reused, either as fuel for nuclear reactors or in medicine.
“Most of nuclear waste isn’t real waste as it can be reprocessed into reactor fuel,” Terry said. “The U.S. has actually demonstrated that before with the EBR-2 reactor. You’re never going to recover 100 percent of the uranium or plutonium, but you can get back a tremendous amount. Fission products are also useful for other things like radio-pharmaceuticals.”
There are currently 1.4 million solar energy installations in the U.S., many of which are nearing the end of their 25-year-long lifespans. Governments haven’t done nearly as much to handle solar waste as nuclear waste.
“Nuclear waste is the most regulated waste in the history of mankind,” Barrett said. “Very detailed USNRC [U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission] and USEPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] regulations and standards have been developed requiring very stringent limits to protect public health and safety and the environment out to one million years in the future. No other waste form has such protective requirements.”
Some research indicates that solar panels aren’t even an effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is the entire justification to promote the technology.
The net impact of solar panels actually temporarily increased carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, due to how much energy is used in their construction, a study published in December 2016 concluded. The solar industry has been “a temporary net emitter of greenhouse gas emissions,” and more modern solar panels have a smaller adverse environmental impact than older models. Scientists estimated that by 2018 at the latest, the solar industry as a whole could have a net positive environmental impact.
Federal data suggests that building solar panels significantly increases emissions of the potent greenhouse gas nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), which is 17,200 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas over a 100 year time period. NF3 emissions have increased by 1,057 percent over the last 25 years. In comparison, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions only rose by about 5 percent during the same time period.
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