Back in the early 20th century, the fascination with atoms and subatomic particles was reaching a fever pitch, and with the discovery of radium and subsequent radioactive elements, the use of nuclear energy intrigued the entire world.
Nuclear material has become a key component of everything from atomic bombs to energy production for entire cities, as it is far more efficient than other fossil fuels or natural forms of energy. However, as Spiderman’s uncle once said, with great power comes great responsibility.
That has been the sticking point for the nuclear industry for the better part of sixty years: how can this incredibly powerful fuel be harnessed, handled, used, stored, and disposed of in a safe way. Thus, the great debate over what to do with the nuclear waste that we have, and how we can improve our methods in the future.
From complete elimination of nuclear material usage to burying nuclear waste in granite tombs at the bottom of the ocean, there are many ideas and suggestions for how to deal with nuclear waste, but one thing can be agreed on: It is a serious issue that has definitely not been solved!
The Root of the Problem
When nuclear material is used, for example, to power a nuclear power plant, when that material is used up or expended, it is called nuclear waste. Many times, this is in the form of metal tubes that had contained the radioactive pellets. Nuclear waste is also a byproduct of nuclear medicine (e.g., chemotherapy) and research. Radiation and radioactive material can spread to the air, groundwater, or other substances from this nuclear waste, which is why it must be handled so carefully.
There are varying levels of nuclear waste, but the most concerning type is high-level waste (HLW), which is often generated during the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. To extract all the possible uranium from the nuclear waste canisters or “waste”, a liquid byproduct is generated, and this extremely potent radioactive material represents roughly 95% of dangerous manmade radioactive material.
If this material isn’t safely shipped, stored, or neutralized, it can destroy huge swaths of the environment, killing animals and humans alike. For this reason, the transport and storage of nuclear waste is a massive industry, and a very important one!
Since the advent of nuclear power, thousands of installations across the world rely on, produce, ship, store, sell, or develop nuclear products, and all of those processes generate a huge amount of waste. The question therefore becomes, where do we put it?
Where Is All the Nuclear Waste Now?
We’ve been working with nuclear power and generating nuclear waste since the 1940s, and the nuclear nations of the world have developed and implemented a number of strategies to storing nuclear waste. Large underground bunkers or silos have been a popular choice, typically encased in bitumen or concrete, to store medium-level waste, while low-level waste can often be compacted and incinerated before the remains are encased and buried underground.
These are only the major classifications of waste, but there are many other types, including research, medicine, decommissioned weapons, and legacy waste, all of which must be handled in unique ways.
There are silos and landfills throughout the world that contain radioactive dumping zones, and while regulation on these sites and facilities is intense, there is still the very real fear of radiation leaking and impacting the nearby communities, even those dozens of miles away. Radiation is invasive and can spread through soil and water very rapidly, so any shifting or breaking of these bunkers (as a result of earthquakes, erosion, etc.) could be disastrous.
Also, if we’ve learned anything from pop culture, it’s that nuclear waste disposal sites can create things like this.
When there is a nuclear waste incident, such as the Fukushima Daichi Plant disaster in Japan, the entire world stands up and takes notice, because nuclear material can be transmitted through the atmosphere, and through ocean currents, affecting food that may be exported to other parts of the world. There are many response measures in place, but the imperfect nature of our technology and preparation means that we’re always looking for new options.
Nuclear Waste Disposal in the Future?
When it comes to protecting our planet and society, nothing should ever be deemed impossible, so there have been plenty of ideas on how we can eliminate or safely story nuclear waste in the future. One of the most popular ideas is to launch the waste into space. However, many philosophers, academics, and activists argue that we shouldn’t start throwing away our garbage into outer space, just because we created too much on our own planet. How would we feel if some radioactive trash fell onto our planet from a few million light years away and destroyed our way of life?
Deep borehole drilling, ice sheet induction, undersea disposal, rock-melting, sub-seabed disposal and many other proposals have come across the international table in the past few decades, and many have been dismissed due to the uncertainty and risk of exposure to the environment. Some of the most popular locations for spent nuclear waste is actually at nuclear power plants, and more than 75 plants around the world function as repositories.
Plunging nuclear waste into the center of a mountain (beneath the Alps, for example) has been suggested by certain European nations, and has also intrigued the United States, which generates thousands of tons of nuclear waste every year, and plenty of mountain ranges to consider.
Deep final repositories seem like the best option from a physical standpoint, and by digging more than 3,000 feet into the earth and excavating massive storage caverns, we can almost guarantee that the nuclear waste will be permanently separated from the human environment. However, we can never truly be sure, because unlike human beings, radioactive material doesn’t have a short lifespan. In fact, most radioactive material has a half life between 10,000 and 1,000,000 years! In other words, we not only have to ensure that these final resting places for such dangerous materials keep us and our children safe, but also thousands of generations down the line!
One of the other logical and seemingly safe methods of nuclear waste disposal is transmutation, meaning changing the radioactive material to a different substance, typically on that is still radioactive, but less dangerous and easier to handle (unlike HLW). This is a rather expensive and energy-heavy method, and also involves a great deal of direct handling of this toxic waste, which requires significant infrastructure.
Some radioactive isotopes can be directly re-used for other applications, so when they are removed from nuclear waste, they can be “recycled” to a certain degree. The problem with not immediately stashing away our radioactive waste is that is increases the chances of exposure, and also heightens the chance of theft. Radioactive material can be used to make dirty bombs and is considered a major threat to national security, so this sort of nuclear waste needs to be guarded too!
As you can see, many of the complications of nuclear waste have not been solved, but with increased regulation and constant research into new, affordable, and safe options, we are getting closer to a viable solution. The problem is, nuclear energy is useful and essential for many of world’s power needs; the demand for nuclear energy will always be there, so the demand for improvements in nuclear waste disposal will be around too!
- Storage and 'Disposal' of Nuclear Waste - Professor Robert B. Laughlin Stanford University
- Nuclear Waste Disposal Methods - Professor Robert B. Laughlin Stanford University
- Science Daily
- Nuclear Waste - Union of Concerned Scientists
- Finding Long-Term Solutions for Nuclear Waste - United States Department of Energy