Since the middle of the 20th century, the world has lived in the Nuclear Age. From nuclear weapons to massive power plants, radioactive elements have been used for their incredible power and potential.
Unfortunately, using radioactive material in its many forms results in the production of nuclear waste. Radioactive waste is very harmful to individuals and the environment, so it must be disposed of. This happens to be a complex and costly process, so new solutions are always welcome.
A popular suggestion is simply dumping the nuclear waste into a volcano and being done with it… but would that really work?
Can a Volcano Destroy Nuclear Material?
This seems like a tidy little solution for getting rid of the nearly 30,000 tons of radioactive waste stored and stockpiled around the world, but as they say, the devil’s in the details. Volcanoes are incredibly powerful and molten lava is obviously smoking hot, but the temperatures required to consume radioactive material are much higher than even the hottest volcanoes.
In fact, our current storage and transportation methods for nuclear waste include the use of extremely strong, radioactive-resistant metals, such as zirconium. Those metal containers wouldn’t even be able to melt in the heat of a volcano. Supposing that the nuclear waste was exposed to those temperature, “destroying” nuclear material would mean splitting the radioactive element’s nuclei, which would make it inert (no longer radioactive). That sort of atomic “meltdown” would require temperatures in the tens of thousands of degrees, much hotter than volcanoes can provide. Even the hottest volcanoes on the planet don’t surpass 2500 degrees.
Could Volcanoes Be A Safe Place to Store the Waste?
Given that the center of boiling-hot volcanoes isn’t a place most people spend their time, and the fact that volcanoes are often in remote areas, not surrounded by large population centers, it would seem like volcanoes are perfect storage spots for our waste. While volcanoes may be beautiful to look at, they’re famous because they explode, which is where the trouble would start.
The force of volcano eruptions is measured in megatons, often more than 1,600 times greater than the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We know that massive volcanic eruptions in the past have sent thousands of tons of ash and gas into the atmosphere, where it is cycled through the global atmosphere, and eventually settles back down to earth. While this can change weather patterns and global temperature, life can survive such interruptions of sunlight.
If we begin storing or dumping nuclear waste in volcanoes, those titanically massive eruptions will send that radioactive material soaring into the atmosphere and around the world, resulting in mass casualties and environmental destruction.
What About Inactive Volcanoes?
To counter the reason above, some might suggest using inactive volcanoes, but it’s important to remember that volcanoes operate on geologic ages, not the years and decades of our society. A volcano may remain dormant for hundreds or thousands of years, commonly known as the cone-building phase, before once again becoming active.
Over those thousands of years, volcanoes are known to shift and change, and also experience significant weathering and erosion. That radioactive waste could eventually make its way into groundwater, or leak from the volcano in the form of small pyroclastic flows. Those lava flows will harden eventually, resulting in a barren, toxic wasteland wherever the lava travels. While volcanic ash and dirt is often considered to be rich and inspiring for life, this type of radioactive ash, dirt, and lava would do the exact opposite.
Radioactive half-life is also important to consider. Over time, radiation does dissipate, but the half-life of certain nuclear material can often be tens of thousands of years (Plutonium-239 has a 24,000-year half-life). Dumping high-level nuclear waste into any volcano, regardless of how long it has been dormant, there is no way to know whether the volcano will one-day pop its top.
Shorter half-life nuclear material, such as strontium-90 (half-life of roughly 30 years) could theoretically be stored/disposed of in volcanoes, but the most dangerous waste that humans need to manage are those with incredibly long half-lives.
The bottom line is that storing or disposing nuclear waste in a volcano is a terrible idea – for a wide range of reasons. Also, transporting 30,000 tons of nuclear waste to bubbling, boiling volcanoes doesn’t sound like the safest job in the world.
Now, what about sending nuclear waste into space…. hmmmmmm……