When it comes to measuring how green an energy source is, emissions don’t tell the full story. Comparing the environmental impact of emissions-free solar power versus emissions-free nuclear power, solar power panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of electricity produced than nuclear power plants, Environmental Progress reports.
Writing in the Energy Collective website, Environmental Progress estimated the total number of solar panels in operation last year and estimated a functional life span of 25 years for the panels. The environmentalist group then estimated the total amount of nuclear waste – in the form of spent nuclear fuel assemblies – that would be generated during a 25-year period. Environmental Progress then divided both estimates by the total amount of electricity produced to derive the amount of waste generated per unit of electricity production.
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Providing a context to solar power producing 300 times more toxic waste per unit of electricity, the environmental group noted, “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).”
The study observed “Solar panels contain toxic metals like lead, which can damage the nervous system, as well as chromium and cadmium, known carcinogens. All three are known to leach out of existing e-waste dumps into drinking water supplies.”
Even if solar and nuclear power generated similar amounts of toxic waste, solar waste poses more of a threat to the environment and human health, the study implied.
“While nuclear waste is contained in heavy drums and regularly monitored, solar waste outside of Europe today ends up in the larger global stream of electronic waste,” Environmental Progress noted.