They say that the only real problem with nuclear power is taking care of the depleted fuel rods, often called nuclear waste, for hundreds of years after they’ve ceased to function. Sure, a small percentage can be ‘reprocessed’ into new types of nuclear fuel, but costs are so punitive, most power stations simply store the used fuel on site.
Now we’re running into a similar problem with electric cars, but on an exponential scale. New energy vehicles, or NEVs, have been a runaway success, in the US, Europe, and even more so, China, where government policies and consumer choice have made them the predominant type of new car sold.
The cars themselves are great, and can go for hundreds of thousands of kilometres with little service requirements – except for the batteries. When your batteries stop charging properly, as they all do after a few years, you only have two options: buy a new car, or swap out the battery pack.
Like nuclear waste, dead batteries are difficult and costly to recycle, heavy to transport, and full of toxic heavy metals and rare earth minerals. OK, they’re not radioactive, but still, the mountains of useless batteries piling up in China are a real pollution problem, and regulations prevent auto manufacturers from just dumping them. In California, state law obliges the original equipment manufacturer of NEVs to take back old batteries and ‘re-purpose’ them, no matter the cost.
Mining companies are prospecting for lithium and cobalt in battery dumps in Shanghai and Nevada. Tesla, BYD and Panasonic are all trying to design new cells that are easy to disassemble, but still leakproof. Researchers at MIT are hoping to replace lithium with ‘cleaner’ metals like nickel and aluminium.
But for now, if you’re eagerly planning to upgrade to an electric car, remember that you’re paying – upfront – for the cost of a dead, useless, old battery. It just hasn’t happened yet!