Ever since we have discovered how to harness the powerful energy contained within the nucleus of an atom, we have been using it – for both positive and negative purposes. Nuclear energy is an affordable, efficient and reliable option of generating power for many countries. But the dangerous side of the nuclear waste still casts a shadow over its widespread use. It is the troublesome disposal of the waste that remains an unsolved (perhaps even unsolvable) riddle.
Nuclear waste has been described by Michael Stothard as “the most destructive and indestructible waste in history.” It carries this harsh label because the waste remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands to millions of years.
For example, a newly designed nuclear waste repository in France must remain sealed for at least 100,000 years once its filled . During this period, the material stored inside poses a direct threat to all living creatures, and can contaminate the environment with radioactivity if the seal is broken by unexpected events such as earthquakes or human errors.
Although nuclear energy has proven to be very useful for us, the number of inherent risks and dangers associated with negative effects of nuclear waste are serious beyond any doubt. Think Fukushima.
What is nuclear waste?
The definition of nuclear waste is straightforward: It is a radioactive byproduct of nuclear fission.
Nuclear fission is a process when one atom of a fuel used in nuclear power plants splits in tiny particles. For example, a commonly used nuclear fuel is uranium, which splits in two fission byproducts. The atomic nuclei of these two byproducts are highly unstable. This means that they keep losing their energy in the form of radiation (that is what makes them radioactive).
Why is radioactivity dangerous for us?
Radiation is dangerous for living organisms because it affects cells in the body. This often results in their malfunction, which can cause cancer or even worse, the cells can die.
At first, there might be no symptoms apparent on the body, but if the exposure to radiation was significant and has led to irreversible destruction of many cells of internal organs, no cure can save the victim’s life .
The good news is that radioactivity of different elements decays over the time. During this period, they have to be safely confined for as long as their nuclei are unstable. The bad news is that the decay time is very long – thousands of years.
Why is nuclear waste so dangerous?
1. There is no long-term storage solution
Even though nuclear power plants supply 11 percent of the world’s electricity from 449 operating nuclear reactors , there are no safe long-term waste storage repositories.
Our primary way of dealing with radioactive waste at the moment is to simply store it somewhere, and try to figure out what to do with it later. One commonly used “storage place” for decades have been our seas and oceans for their great capacity to dilute radiation.
For example, the British Nuclear Fuels plant at Sellafield had been depositing nuclear waste in the Irish Sea since 1950s. Similar practices were recorded in numerous other locations such as dumping of radioactive reactors from Soviet submarines and weapons in the Arctic Ocean, or countless containers filled with nuclear waste along the coast of San Francisco [6,8].
Clearly, this way of dealing with such a dangerous material is not safe, as the radioactive contamination spreads through our marine ecosystem.
2. The future is unpredictable
What is believed to be one of the safest ways of storing the nuclear waste is in deep geological repositories, where the waste should be kept away from any disturbance for very long periods of time.
However, there are several problems with this concept:
- No one can predict whether these repositories will last for this long. How can our engineers design nuclear waste disposal sites that will resist shifts of tectonic plates or erosion? When these processes are capable of moving mountain ridges and lifting new islands out of the sea?
- No one can make sure they will remain untouched by our descendants in the next centuries, because we do not know how human civilization will evolve on such a long scale. For comparison, 100,000 years ago Neanderthals lived in Europe, and now we know so little about them . What if the same happens in the next thousand years and our descendants will find our nuclear waste repositories attractive to explore like the survivors of the Oceanic Flight 815 in the Lost (TV series) on their mysterious island?
- No one can guarantee 100 percent safety to communities living close to these areas. That’s why people and local authorities are often against the construction of new repositories in their area . Who has the right to make the decision, which might affect the next hundreds of generations, anyway?
3. It contaminates the environment
If not sealed properly, radioactive contamination can easily spread throughout the environment and into various ecosystems. The air, land, and water can all become polluted and harm humans and other lifeforms.
The release of radioactivity into the environment might go unnoticed for many years, especially when considering political differences between countries, where governments do not share the same environmental protection priorities or citizen safety concerns.
Did you know that when the Chernobyl reactor exploded in April 1986, Soviet authorities remained silent about the accident, exposing whole Europe to high levels of radiation?
Two days after the incident, the radioactive cloud reached Sweden, from where the first health risk warning came after measurements showed that the radiation level is 40 percent above normal.
Another example of vague monitoring of contamination levels is the extensive nuclear waste deposition on the seafloor. Since the second half of 20th century, here’s what we have dumped in our oceans:
- Over 200,000 containers with radioactive waste
- 14 nuclear reactors
- 19 ships with nuclear waste
- 6 nuclear submarines 
…and that’s only what we know of. The scale of possible contamination is probably much higher, since it has not been controlled in any way. It should come as no surprise that all this reckless dumping starts to make its way back to our plates in raised concentrations of radioactive elements found in sea food .
The global effect of nuclear contamination is visible even in the most unexpected places on the planet. Biologists have found the link between the increase of skin ulcers on seals and walruses in Alaska, and the leakage of radioactive liquid into the ocean from the 2011 accident in Fukushima .
4. Persistent health effects
It is extremely difficult to measure the impacts of radiation on human body, because of the “hidden” way it changes our body cells. One thing which remains clear, is that apart from the acute radiation symptoms like seizures or hair loss, radioactive substances cause serious long-term health problems.
Many of these problems are of such character that doctors cannot determine if they were ultimately caused by radiation or other factors such as unhealthy lifestyle, genetics, etc.
Some of the chronical health issues from radiation are:
- Gastrointestinal diseases
- Cardiovascular diseases
- Diseases of the nervous system
- Cancers (lung, skin, breast, stomach and other)
Following the Chernobyl accident, scientists could monitor some of the radiation effects on the most exposed human populations from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. They found out that the number of people diagnosed with leukemia increased by 50 percent and cases of various forms of cancer by 40 percent between 1990 and 2000.
The most common type of cancer was the thyroid cancer. According to records, four years after the accident more than 50,000 children from the Gomel Region in Belarus fell sick with this type of cancer. It is believed that they received harmful doses of radioactive iodine from contaminated cow milk.
Radiation took its toll even on unborn babies. Shortly after the incident, the rate of children born with deformities in Ukraine increased threefold .
As you can see, the scale of the potential health impacts to us is large and inapprehensive.
5. Hazardous waste cleanup
Because of the inherent hazardous nature of nuclear waste, it is very expensive to clean up, and can negatively impact the health of those who are involved in the cleanup.
One of the unpleasant examples occurs beneath the beautiful forests of northern Germany. A former salt mine, Asse, which has been used as a nuclear waste repository to 126,000 containers of radioactive waste in 1970s, shows signs of collapse. Even though, some serious cracks in walls appeared already in 1988, the government has decided only recently that the nuclear waste has to be moved.
But that is not an easy process!
Since 2012, engineers are trying to determine if some containers have leaked. For security reasons, they haven’t managed to find out yet and some experts believe that digging up the waste is more risky than leaving it untouched .
According to the state secretary at Federal Ministry of the Environment Jochen Flasbarth: “It is a disastrous situation!”
It costs Germany €140 million a year only to follow the security measures for those involved in the investigation, not on the actual relocation of the waste .
Transporting nuclear waste alone comes with a significant risk. If an accident occurs during transport to a storage facility, the resulting environmental contamination can be devastating.
6. Reprocessing nuclear waste is harmful
Nuclear waste reprocessing is very polluting and is one of the largest sources of human-generated radioactivity on the planet. During this process, plutonium is separated through a series of chemical reactions from the spent uranium fuel. Plutonium is then used as a new fuel or to build nuclear weapons.
While some believe that the idea of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is to our great advantage, there are four important reasons against it:
- Nuclear reprocessing is not an answer to the waste problem. In fact, the amount of waste left behind is higher. Chemical processes used to dissolve spent fuel rods generate significant volume of radioactive liquid waste, which needs to be safely stored (the problem of storage repeats once again) .
- Plutonium ranks amongst the most toxic substances ever known to humans. It accumulates in bones and liver, and makes it difficult to estimate its effects on individuals.
- Plutonium extraction increases the threat of nuclear proliferation. Plutonium is the main compound of nuclear weapons. When reprocessing facilities stock up high amounts of plutonium readily available for manufacturing nuclear weapons, it is just a matter of time until someone takes advantage of it .
- Nuclear reprocessing is an extremely dirty process. Some of the radioactivity generated by the largest nuclear reprocessing facility La Hague in France has been found in the Arctic Circle. According to the Worldwide marine radioactivity studies (WOMARS), the discharge of radioactive substances from La Hague has harmful effects comparable to the Chernobyl accident.
7. Nuclear proliferation
The biggest threat of harvesting nuclear power is what would follow if this technology was misused to destroy lives. We do not have to look too far in the past to remember those who have suffered the gruesome impacts of radiation, do we?
- The end of World War II was marked with the death of some 250,000 people after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki .
- The aftermath of the Chernobyl accident accounts for an increased occurrence of cancer amongst the European population. A team of scientists from Belarus and Russia claims that between 1986 and 2004, approximately 985,000 people died due to their exposure to radiation .
- Even though, authorities claim that there were no deaths caused by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, records of radiation-related deaths appear in the following years. In 2014, the number of total fatalities reached 1,232, and at least 100 children were diagnosed with thyroid cancer .
In terms of nuclear waste, it is the nuclear reprocessing that is the reason to worry. Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods to produce plutonium contributes to a very vulnerable situation where the plutonium could be stolen and used to make nuclear weapons or radioactive bombs.
An “easy” access to pure plutonium increases the risk of terrorists getting hold of it, or countries investing in further nuclear weapon development.
To most of us, none of the above scenarios exactly depict a bright future on earth.
The most common sources of nuclear waste
As mentioned before, most of the nuclear waste originates from nuclear fission. Some waste is produced also during other stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, such as mining and processing of uranium to become a suitable nuclear fuel .
Other sources of nuclear waste come from medical institutions (e.g. CT scanning, mammography, etc.), industrial uses, or nuclear weapons. Certain amount of radioactive material is also freely distributed in nature. Fossil fuels usually contain small percentage of radioactive elements like uranium or radium .
What does nuclear waste look like?
From the outside, nuclear waste looks the same as the fuel that was loaded into the reactor before— assemblies of metal rods. These rods contain high level (and high risk) radioactive elements, created during the fission of uranium .
Radioactivity is not visible to our eye or detectable by our senses. Some Chernobyl liquidators mentioned a metallic taste in their mouth, while working in the most infested zones – but this was the case of a very strong radiation.
It’s important to know that radioactive waste does not originate only from the energy industry. Other low or medium risk waste comes also from hospitals and industries. This waste is comprised of products, tools, or any kind of objects (gloves, clothes, syringes, containers, etc.) that were subjected to irradiation.
How much nuclear waste is produced?
On average, more than 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel is generated every year from nuclear power plants . This amount only adds up to the global long-term nuclear waste storage problem.
In the United States alone, 90,000 metric tons of waste awaits safe disposal. To get a better picture, this amount would fill a football field about 20 meters deep .
A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates the total amount of waste produced globally to be over 228,300 metric tons .
All this waste just accumulates every year in many locations around the world and like a ticking bomb endangers unaware communities.
Better alternatives exist today
Because of the many risks that are associated with nuclear waste, our efforts and funding are much better spent on clean and renewable forms of energy that do not pose such hazards to health and to the environment.
As clean technologies develop, the costs of deploying renewable energy continue to decrease, while the costs associated with nuclear power continue to increase. At the same time, we shall not forget all the health and environmental risks involved with the nuclear waste management.