Guest post by David Middleton

Are We Headed for a Solar Waste Crisis?

June 28, 2017 by Mark Nelson

Last November, Japan’s Environment Ministry issued a stark warning: the amount of solar panel waste Japan produces every year will rise from 10,000 to 800,000 tons by 2040, and the nation has no plan for safely disposing of it.

Neither does California, a world leader in deploying solar panels. Only Europe requires solar panel makers to collect and dispose of solar waste at the end of their lives.

All of which begs the question: just how big of a problem is solar waste?

Environmental Progress investigated the problem to see how the problem compared to the much more high-profile issue of nuclear waste.

We found:

  • Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.
  • If solar and nuclear produce the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km).
  • In countries like China, India, and Ghana, communities living near e-waste dumps often burn the waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off the plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled.

The study defines as toxic waste the spent fuel assemblies from nuclear plants and the solar panels themselves, which contain similar heavy metals and toxins as other electronics, such as computers and smartphones.


By Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson

Jemin Desai is an EP Fellow and a student at UC Berkeley. Mark Nelson is EP Senior Researcher.

Desai and Nelson, Energy Collective

Piling on a bit here… Nuclear waste can easily be safely disposed of:


Unlimited Release
Printed July 2009

Deep Borehole Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste

Patrick V. Brady, Bill W. Arnold, Geoff A. Freeze, Peter N. Swift, Stephen J. Bauer, Joseph L. Kanney, Robert P. Rechard, Joshua S. Stein

Prepared by
Sandia National Laboratories Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185 and Livermore, California 94550


Preliminary evaluation of deep borehole disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel indicates the potential for excellent long-term safety performance at costs competitive with mined repositories. Significant fluid flow through basementrock is prevented, in part, by low permeabilities, poorly connected transport pathways, and overburden self-sealing. Deep fluids also resist vertical movement because they are density stratified. Thermal hydrologic calculations estimate the thermal pulse from emplaced waste to be small (less than 20° C at 10 meters from the borehole, for less than a few hundred years), and to result in maximum total vertical fluid movement of ~100 m. Reducing conditions will sharply limit solubilities of most dose-critical radionuclides at depth, and high ionic strengths of deep fluids will prevent colloidal transport.

DOE estimates that 109,300 metric tons heavy metal (MTHM) of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel – primarily commercial spent nuclear fuel (CSNF), but also DOE spent nuclear fuel (DSNF), and high-level waste glass (HLWG) – will need to be disposed of in the US (the projected US HLW and SNF inventory is summarized in Appendix A).,Deep borehole disposal, characterization and excavation costs should scale linearly with waste inventory: small inventories require fewer boreholes; large inventories require more boreholes. Not needing a specially engineered waste package would also lower overall borehole disposal costs. Both aspects might make borehole disposal attractive for smaller national nuclear power efforts (having an inventory of 10,000 MTHM or less). In the US, the 70,000 MTHM of waste currently proposed for Yucca Mountain could be accommodated in about 600 deep boreholes (assuming each deep borehole had a 2 km long waste disposal zone that contained approximately 400 vertically stacked fuel assemblies). The remainder of the projected inventory of 109,300 MTHM could be fit into an additional 350 or so boreholes.

Because crystalline basement rocks are relatively common at 2-5 km depth (See Figure 2; also see O’Brien et al. 1979; Heiken et al. 1996), the US waste disposal burden might be shared by shipping waste to regional borehole disposal facilities. If located near existing waste inventories and production, shipping would be minimized. A disposal length of ~2km, and holes spaced 0.2km apart suggests the total projected US inventory could be disposed in several borehole fields totaling ~30 square kilometers.

Petroleum drilling costs have decreased to the point where boreholes are now routinely drilled to multi-kilometer depths. Research boreholes in Russia and Germany have been drilled to 8-12 km. The drilling costs for 950 deep boreholes to dispose of the…