Here’s the bottom line on nuclear waste: it’s incredibly toxic, incredibly dangerous, and if you’re among the 99 percent who aren’t employed by the nuclear energy industry, you don’t want it stored anywhere near your home.
Even if you work in nuclear energy you may not want it near your home, whether you feel free to admit it or not. Safety measures aside, nuclear waste makes people skittish, and that is understandable.
No one wants nuclear waste buried in their neighborhood, and that is part of the problem. But the biggest part of the problem is that such waste is produced inside nuclear energy facilities at astonishing levels—250,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel were stored onsite at nuclear power plants around the world as of the last accounting, and that number grows by the thousands of tons each and every year .
Why is it difficult to deal with nuclear waste safely?
The waste products produced inside nuclear reactor cores are deadly to all forms of life. When uranium is converted into energy through nuclear fission, the spent fuel rods it leaves behind are contaminated with radioactive poisons like cesium-137, iodine-131 and strontium-90, each of which emits significant quantities of ionizing radiation that can severely damage the cells of living organisms, along with their DNA (it is the latter effect that is responsible for the cancer risk associated with radiation exposure) .
The radiation produced by these toxic fission byproducts can easily penetrate a range of materials, and that means nuclear waste must be handled remotely and with radiation-proof shielding to prevent dangerous human exposures.
Plutonium is another byproduct of nuclear fission, and while it does not have the same penetrating qualities as cesium-137, iodine-131 and strontium-90 it is literally the deadliest substance on the face of the earth . This means it, too, must be handled with extraordinary caution, and it also must be kept secure since plutonium can be used to build nuclear weapons.
Where is nuclear waste stored?
Initially, spent nuclear fuel rods removed from nuclear reactors are stored in isolated deep-water pools, which have walls made of reinforced concrete poured several feet thick, with steel liners added for extra protection.
To prevent overfilling of these pools, power plant companies will eventually transfer nuclear waste to large, heavy, stainless-steel casks entombed in concrete and stored above ground on power plant property. Spent fuel rods are both radioactive and thermally hot, and they must be left to cool off underwater for at least five years before they are moved to dry cask storage .
These storage methods are designed to last for no more than a few decades, until a permanent underground repository can be built and opened—assuming such a thing ever happens, which at this point seems like a dubious proposition .
Effects of radioactive waste in the ocean
Between 1946 and 1993, as many as 13 countries were using the oceans of the world as a dumping ground for nuclear waste . Thankfully, this activity has now been outlawed by treaty, but illegal dumping is still going on in certain locations where environmental policing is lax .
For a long time, ocean dumping was considered relatively safe, since the seas are so vast and their powers to dilute so advanced. But wastes will inevitably accumulate in the areas where the dumping occurs, and in those areas the risk is not minimal. Microscopic plant life that colonizes every square inch of the ocean can absorb toxic radiation and pass it up through the food chain, from fish to mammals to human beings.
What is the proper way to dispose of radioactive waste?
Human beings must be protected from nuclear waste for as long as it maintains its ability to produce deadly or cancer-causing levels of ionizing radiation. This means that spent fuel rods must be kept in radiation-proof containers indefinitely, and those who handle it must be protected by shielding, special clothing and other measures designed to keep them safe from radioactive exposure. Extra care must be taken if nuclear waste is transported to offsite locations, to make sure accidents don’t happen and that any possibility of leakage or theft.
Deep underground burial in geologically stable locations is the best way to dispose of radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants. However, constructing such repositories is expensive, time-consuming and requires political support that as of yet has not been forthcoming.
High-Level nuclear waste disposal
Because of its tremendous toxicity, which will make it lethal for tens of thousands of years or longer, high-level nuclear waste is not fit for conventional disposal. It must be stored in safe, secure locations, in durable containers that won’t crack, leak, or be vulnerable to damage from bombs, earthquakes, or high-powered weapons used in military or terrorist attacks.
While cesium-137 and strontium-90 have half-lives of 30 years, meaning they lose half of their potency in that amount of time, plutonium has a half-life of more than 24,000 years (and that might be a conservative estimate) .
High-level nuclear waste reserves its toxic capacity far too long to be released into the environment, which is why deep underground entombment is considered the best long-term solution for the disposal of these substances.
Low-Level nuclear waste disposal
Low-level nuclear waste refers to materials that have been contaminated as a result of secondary radioactive exposures. While they shouldn’t be handled when they’re still “hot,” they aren’t as potent or hazardous as the byproducts of nuclear energy production.
Hospitals, factories and private or government laboratories are frequent sources of low-level nuclear waste, which is also produced in some quantity by activities connected to the nuclear fuel cycle . Depending on the extent of the contamination and the rate of radioactive decay, low-level nuclear waste may be stored onsite until it is safe for normal disposal in landfills, or it may be sent to special protective facilities that dispose of low-level waste underground.
Where does the United States store nuclear waste?
At the present time, high-level nuclear waste produced inside nuclear power plants in the United States is stored onsite, since there are no centralized nuclear waste repositories anywhere in the country. In fact, no country that relies on nuclear energy has constructed such facilities, and only in Finland is one even under construction .
Proposed nuclear waste disposal sites
After considering a number of locations, in 1987 the U.S. Congress chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for a permanent underground nuclear waste repository .
The proposed repository would have been large enough to accept waste shipped from all of the country’s nuclear power plants, and was believed to be a safe location because it is in the middle of the Nevada desert hundred of miles from any large settlement.
But the project never got off the ground. It was derailed by state lawsuits, widespread resistance from Nevada residents and independent geological studies that suggested the Yucca Mountain site might be more prone to volcanic activities and water erosion than previously believed .
Bowing to public pressure, the Yucca Mountain site was abandoned by the Obama Administration, which called for the establishment of a commission to find a more appropriate location for the repository . But no such commission has been formed, and many in Congress and the nuclear industry are still pushing the Yucca Mountain location as the most viable solution.
Can you recycle nuclear waste?
Spent fuel rods can be reprocessed and separated into its constituent ingredients, and the plutonium extracted can be re-used as fuel for nuclear reactors. But reprocessing procedures involve the dissolution of used fuel rods in liquid, which creates enough liquid waste to increase the mass of radioactive materials in need of disposal by a factor of 20 .
Reprocessing leaves the disposal and storage problem intact, and creates addition complications since liquid waste is prone to leakage and could contaminate underground or above-ground water supplies if any of it escapes.
Breeder reactors could reuse most of the waste they produce as fuel, potentially cutting waste down by a notable degree. But so far breeder reactor technology has proven to be more hype than reality, and despite tens of billions of dollars spent in development most breeder reactor projects have stalled or been abandoned .
Finding a solution to the nuclear waste problem
Scientists associated with the nonprofit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) have proposed an alternative long-term solution for the disposal of high-level nuclear waste in the United States and elsewhere around the world .
They assert that onsite storage in dry caskets or similar solid structures should continue for the next several decades, while intensive geological research is performed to determine where nuclear waste can be most safely and securely disposed (despite assurances to the contrary, such research has yet to be undertaken). They recommend that above-ground, below-ground and sub-seabed options all be evaluated, and that repository sites be ultimately chosen based strictly on geological principles.
If a plan similar to this were to be adopted on a global basis, nations that choose to decommission their nuclear power plants and transition away from nuclear power plants entirely might have an easier time finding workable solutions to long-term storage and disposal problems. Repositories constructed there would not have to be left open indefinitely, but could be sealed up after a few years once all existing waste had been safely sequestered in geologically stable settings.
Choosing multiple locations for disposal is likely to prove more politically tenable than selecting a single centralized site, since no community or population group will feel unfairly treated or unnecessarily burdened by having a nuclear waste disposal facility located in their region.
The political and environmental obstacles that have prevented the construction of long-term storage and disposal facilities are real, and they can’t be easily dismissed in societies that pay homage to democracy and ecological sustainability. Nevertheless, high-level nuclear waste is accumulating worldwide at an alarming rate, and steps will need to be taken to safely deal with this situation.
Eventually every nuclear power plant must be decommissioned, and once that happens onsite storage responsibilities will be passed on to the public and their elected representatives, who will no longer be able to bury their heads in the sand and pretend this nuclear waste doesn’t exist.
Nuclear energy may be temporary, but its toxic legacy will endure
Public support for nuclear energy tends to rise or fall based on what questions are asked and who is asking them. Agencies connected to the nuclear power industry publish poll results that seem to indicate broad public approval, while polls commissioned by environmental organizations show a slight majority disapprove of nuclear energy and would like to see it phased out .
But regardless of how people feel about nuclear energy in theory, questions about what to do with nuclear waste produces overwhelming NIMBY (not in my backyard) numbers.
Unfortunately, even if the nuclear industry is doomed to extinction (which is far from a sure thing), its death will be slow and protracted, and the hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic remnants it leaves behind will remain with us until we do something about it.