Please, John Oliver, Please Talk To A Real Nuclear Scientist

By James Conca

On Sunday night, the brilliant comedic satirist, John Oliver, presented a very funny, if basically wrong, segment on nuclear waste.

What I love so much about John Oliver is his attention to technical and scientific detail. So I was a bit confused with his nuclear waste piece since it was obvious he, or his research people, had never talked with an actual nuclear scientist. Anti-nuke activists, sure. But not a real scientist.

This is not surprising since there aren’t many of us, and even fewer able or willing to talk openly about nuclear waste. I am hurt, though, that climate scientists get on all the cool shows, but nuclear scientists just get dissed. A dangerous trend in our present national purge of science.

So John’s piece sounded like a well-written sketch at an anti-nuke rally, but did not capture any of the science, history or reality of nuclear waste.

Although, a radioactive alligator was hilarious. I have personally known radioactive turtles, rabbits, mice, worms and blackberries. But not an alligator.

However, the danger just isn’t there.

Which is sad because the real story of nuclear waste is much funnier than what John described. Really.

Picture it – the Cold War still raging, a hostile Speaker of the House, an unusual President. And a bunch of scientists that thought the country actually wanted the answer to this problem.

John would be perfect cast as a nuclear scientist. He looks just like one!

Does it matter what John got wrong?  Probably not, since the country has entered an alternative reality anyway, often what John rails against, and will only remember: NUCLEAR WASTE – BAD.

If they care at all.

However, to correct the highlights, John claimed that nuclear waste poses a serious threat to public health and the environmentUmm…no, it doesn’t.

It’s one of the least threatening issues facing our country, the one with the lowest risk factors of any environmental threatIt’s safer to work at a nuclear site than to sit at a desk trading stocks. Of course, that might be funnier if we end up not raising the debt ceiling. But these numbers are OSHA data.

John wasn’t aware just how different commercial waste is from weapons waste. Or that we have a deep geologic repository for weapons waste already. Unless we’re idiots, used commercial fuel will be burned in fast reactors to get ten times more energy out of it, not thrown away.

Besides, there just isn’t much nuclear waste. 70,000 tons over 60 years? Hello – it’s uranium, the heaviestelement on Earth prior to 1940. That much waste wouldn’t even fill one good-sized landfill. Coal generates that much toxic waste every 30 minutes.

No one is going to die from nuclear waste. No one ever has. And we know what to do with it, where to put it, and what it’s going to cost.

We just aren’t allowed to do it.

John of all people should know that scientists have no decision-making power – at all. The three ways that science is allowed to enter public decisions is itself an episode for Last Week Tonight.

So we can discuss why everyone is so afraid of nuclear, or why we actually don’t see any bad health effects around nuclear sites, or what Cold War political fight took this fear of radiation to absurd levels, or how science-based solutions should be chosen first except we can’t seem to make any decisions as a nation anymore.

Or we can sum it up by saying:

NUCLEAR WASTE – No big deal

This article was originally posted on Forbes.


Dr. James ConcaDr. James Conca is an expert on energy, nuclear and dirty bombs, a planetary geologist, and a professional speaker. Follow him on Twitter @jimconca and see his book at

2 thoughts on “Please, John Oliver, Please Talk To A Real Nuclear Scientist

  1. Henry Spitz

    I saw the bit and found that it had a lot of accurate information, but presented with “tongue-in-cheek”. John Oliver has also addressed the health care and many other technical and political issue with similar jocularity. The major flaw in his bit on high level nuclear waste was failing to consider reprocessing as a solution to the problem. We have ourselves to blame for failing to support leaders with sufficient vision and abilities to resolve the issue of the disposal of nuclear waste. The concept of “not in my backyard” is a difficult one to address without viable leadership.

  2. Steve Nesbit

    Jim, I really enjoy your columns and insights but I think you are dead wrong about the Oliver piece.

    I thought it was funny and a good example of how to communicate effectively on nuclear matters using humor. We nuclear engineers are just too serious most of the time.

    I didn’t think it was egregiously inaccurate. I didn’t like the way Oliver convolved weapons waste and used nuclear fuel, but he’s not the first to do so, and he won’t be the last.

    His bottom line was great – i.e., it’s important to manage nuclear waste carefully and safely and we need to get on with the job. All of that is true.

    I’m afraid I don’t agree with you that nuclear waste is no big deal. In particular, I believe the liquid waste at Hanford is a real chemical and radiological hazard that should be mitigated as soon as possible. Yes, used fuel is not a clear and present danger – except to the future of the nuclear industry, if we don’t demonstrate to the public that we are on top of it. Replanning a new solution every decade or two does not inspire public confidence, nor should it.

    Unless the country develops a sense of urgency about the issue, we are going to end up with used fuel scattered indefinitely at dozens of sites with no operating reactor – not a good idea and not the kind of legacy I want to give my children and grandchildren.