The emergence of nuclear energy offers promising opportunities for low-cost and highly efficient energy sources. However, the proper disposal of nuclear waste is still highly challenging.
Nuclear waste is one of the most difficult kinds of waste to manage because it is highly hazardous. Hence, we are going to explore the biggest nuclear waste disposal problems and solutions.
Materials from nuclear processes that are either naturally radioactive or have been tainted by other radioactive elements are referred to as nuclear waste.
It is waste radiated during the nuclear energy production process. There is much debate over how this waste should be disposed of and this is especially true in the case of high-level waste (HLW).
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nuclear waste is sorted into six general categories. These include:
- Spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors
- Uranium mill tailings from mining and milling of uranium ore
- High-level waste from spent nuclear fuel reprocessing
- Low-level waste
- Transuranic waste from defense programs.
- Naturally occurring and accelerator-produced radioactive materials.
Nuclear waste disposal or radioactive waste management is an important part of nuclear power generation and some very important and strict guidelines have to be followed by nuclear power plants and other companies.
These guidelines ensure that all nuclear waste is disposed of safely, carefully, and with as little damage as possible to life (whether animal or plant). The nuclear plant produces radioactive nuclear waste, which can cause serious damage to human health and the environment
One must avoid coming into contact with such radioactive nuclear waste. One cannot discuss nuclear energy in some countries without the so-called problem of ‘nuclear waste’ rearing its head, yet in others it is hardly an issue at all.
Table of Contents
10 Biggest Nuclear Waste Disposal Problems and Solutions
We’re going to explore the problems and solutions of nuclear waste disposal, and it promises to be intriguing.
Problems of Nuclear Waste Disposal
- There is no long-term Storage Solution
- Expensive to Cleanup
- Long Half-Life
- Problem of Specification
- Reprocessing Nuclear Waste is Harmful
1. There is no long-term Storage Solution
There are no safe long-term waste storage repositories, even though nuclear power plants supply 11 percent of the world’s electricity from 449 operating nuclear reactors.
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 has been our seas and oceans for their great capacity to dilute radiation.
For example, the British Nuclear Fuels plant at Sellafield has been depositing nuclear waste in the Irish Sea since the 1950s. Similar practices were recorded in numerous other locations, such as the 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.
However, this way of dealing with such a dangerous material is not safe, as the radioactive contamination spreads through our marine ecosystem thereby damaging the water body and species in it.
2. Expensive to Cleanup
Because of the inherently 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.
For example, one unpleasant scenario occurred beneath the beautiful forests of northern Germany. A former salt mine, Asse, which was used as a nuclear waste repository for 126,000 containers of radioactive waste in the 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!” 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.
Also 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.
The cost of cleaning everything up and making everything safe once again for people, animals, and plants is very high. There is no simple or easy route when trying to clean up spilled radioactive material; instead, it can take years to ensure that an area is safe to live in or even to visit once again.
In the case of very serious accidents, it may take many tens of years until things start growing or living normally once again.
3. Long Half-Life
If you’re wondering what half-life is in radioactive elements, it’s simply the amount of time needed for radioactive nuclei to undergo a 50% decay.
Now, the products of nuclear fission have long half-lives. This means that they will continue to be radioactive for many thousands of years, i.e., radiating for a long time, thereby remaining a potential threat all along. So, they cannot be disposed of in an open area.
Furthermore, if anything were to happen to the waste cylinders in which nuclear waste is stored, this material could be extremely volatile and dangerous for many years to come. The life of a radioactive nuclear waste product is very long.
4. Problem of Specification
The main radioactive waste disposal problem is that governments insist on defining set-aside ash-choked nuclear fuel as radioactive waste, and dishonestly asserting that the reason for keeping it in storage is not that it has never done any harm there, and has future value, but that no way of permanently discarding it as waste is known
Another government lie is that it represents a significant danger when stored. If believed, this sets up a dilemma: risk burying it or risk keeping it but shielding them from blame for making money on fossil fuels, whose wastes do hurt people.
A particularly bad problem in developing nations is that people often go scavenging for abandoned nuclear waste that is still radioactive. In some countries, there is a market for these sorts of scavenged goods, which means that people will willingly expose themselves to dangerous levels of radiation to make money.
Unfortunately, however, radioactive materials can be highly volatile and cause some problems. Usually, people who scavenge these sorts of materials will end up in hospitals and may even die of problems related to or caused by the radioactive materials.
Unfortunately, once someone has been exposed to nuclear waste, they can then expose other people who have not opted to go scavenging for nuclear waste to radioactive materials.
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, it still stands that nuclear reprocessing is not an answer to the waste problem; rather, it is a problem on its own.
The amount of waste left behind is higher. Chemical processes used to dissolve spent fuel rods generate a significant volume of radioactive liquid waste, which needs to be safely stored (the problem of storage repeats once again).
Plutonium ranks among the most toxic substances ever known to humans. It accumulates in the bones and liver and makes it difficult to estimate its effects on individuals.
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.
Solutions to Nuclear Waste Disposal Problems
- Build Molten-salt Thorium Reactors
- Storage of Used Fuel
- Deep Geological Disposal
- Maintaining a Positive Mind in Dealing with the Problems
- Reducing Waste in the First Place
1. Build Molten-salt Thorium Reactors
One way to solve the nuclear waste problem would be to build molten-salt thorium reactors. These types of reactors can be made inherently safe, meaning they cannot go “boom” like Chernobyl and would also not melt down like Fukushima if power completely fails.
The thorium reactors could be fed the existing nuclear waste over time to be “burned” in the nuclear reactions inside the reactor. Also, the reactors would produce electrical power.
Yes, the thorium reaction also produces nuclear waste, but the thorium decay line produces stable elements much faster. Nuclear waste needs only to be stored safely for a few hundred years instead of hundreds of thousands of years with uranium and plutonium-based reactors.
Thorium technology can be designed to ‘burn up’ actinides (the rest of the horizontal family on the periodic table).
It is significantly less expensive to build a thorium plant. The ‘footprint’ for a 450 Mw reactor, could be buried and only the electric generating shack, connection to the grid and an access road would show. Solar would be more than 1000 acres and (currently) a useful life of 20–30 years.
Thorium makes the management of energy and waste of all kinds much simpler.
2. Storage of Used Fuel
For used fuel designated as high-level radioactive waste (HLW), the first step is storage to allow the decay of radioactivity and heat, making handling much safer.
Storage of used fuel is normally under water for at least five years and then often in dry storage. Storage of used fuel may be in ponds or dry casks, either at reactor sites or centrally.
Beyond storage, many options have been investigated that seek to provide publicly acceptable, safe, and environmentally sound solutions to the final management of radioactive waste. The most widely favored solution is deep geological disposal.
3. Deep Geological Disposal
Radioactive wastes are stored to avoid any chance of radiation exposure to people, or any pollution. The radioactivity of the wastes decays with time, providing a strong incentive to store high-level waste for about 50 years before disposal.
Deep geological disposal is widely agreed to be the best solution for the final disposal of the most radioactive waste produced.
Most low-level radioactive waste (LLW) is typically sent to land-based disposal immediately following its packaging for long-term management.
This means that for the majority (90% by volume) of all of the waste types produced by nuclear technologies, a satisfactory disposal means has been developed and is being implemented around the world.
The focus is on how and where to construct such facilities. Used fuel that is not intended for direct disposal may instead be reprocessed to recycle the uranium and plutonium it contains.
Some separated liquid (HLW) arises during reprocessing; this is vitrified in glass and stored pending final disposal. Intermediate-level radioactive waste (ILW) that contains long-lived radioisotopes is also stored pending disposal in a geological repository.
Several countries dispose of (ILW) containing short-lived radioisotopes in near-surface disposal facilities, as used for (LLW) disposal.
Some countries are at the preliminary stages of their consideration of disposal for ILW and HLW, whilst others, in particular Finland, have made good progress.
Most countries have investigated deep geological disposal and it is official policy to be an efficient means of disposing nuclear waste.
4. Maintaining a Positive Mind in Dealing with The Problems
First, we can stop exaggerating and emphasizing the dangers and difficulties of dealing with radioactive waste and nuclear power at every possible opportunity.
Right now in the US, there are heaps of high-level waste from fission reactors, from medical sources used for cancer treatment, as well as heaps of low-level radioactive waste all over the country.
This is creating no health hazard at all. But then, it is not a long-term solution and it is not the best that can be done but we are not all enveloped in clouds of radioactive dust.
We can start by making a rational comparison with the waste disposal and pollution problems that are associated with other methods of power generation.
That having been done, we can then build fast spectrum breeder reactors to burn up the long-lived actinides in the “waste stream” from light water, heavy water, and graphite-moderated thermal reactors, many of which are fissile, most of which are fissionable.
Alternatively, we could learn to deal with the growth of the world’s human population. Control that growth, then reduce the population to some reasonable and stable level, and the problems of energy generation and waste disposal will suddenly look far more manageable, no matter what the source of energy that is ultimately used turns out to be.
5. Reducing Waste in the First Place
This method focuses specifically on storing and disposing of waste products from nuclear reactors. However, there has also been significant investment in finding ways of reducing the amount of waste created in the first place.
There are currently 55 nuclear startups with $1.6 billion in funding. The nuclear sector is very restrictive and presents great barriers to new players because of the history of the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) as an entity intended to thwart nuclear arms proliferation and not one that is focused on engaging with innovative entrepreneurs.
In conclusion, from this article and the current societal trend, proper disposal of nuclear waste is still a challenging issue that constrains the growth of nuclear power.
The main problem lies in the half-lives produced by radioisotopes, which are very long. Some of them are more than a million years old. Hence, this makes the control and management of nuclear waste much more difficult.
However, the most commonly used method for nuclear waste disposal is storage, either using steel cylinders as radioactive shields or using deep geologic disposal methods.
But then, the disposal of nuclear waste by storage still has many concerns, since the leakage of the nuclear waste may cause huge environmental disasters as well as impact human health.
- 7 Environmental Impacts of Iron Ore Mining
- 8 Best Masters in Waste Management Programs
- 14 Chemical Waste Disposal Methods
- Top 10 Negative Effects of Improper Waste Disposal on the Environment
- The Cost of Cutting Corners: The Hidden Dangers of Improper Business Waste Disposal
Ahamefula Ascension is a Real Estate Consultant, Data Analyst, and Content writer. He is the founder of Hope Ablaze Foundation and a Graduate of Environmental Management in one of the prestigious colleges in the country. He is obsessed with Reading, Research and Writing.