Nuclear waste is piling up: Governments need to stop dithering and take action

Nuclear waste is piling up – governments need to stop dithering and take action
The Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Station in Finland, at the site of the Onkalo geological disposal facility. Credit: Claire Corkhill, Author provided

The UK government has launched a process to find a volunteer community who would be willing to host a £12 billion geological disposal facility for nuclear waste. It's about time—the initiative comes after seven decades of successive governments putting the decision off. The situation is similar in many other countries, with dangerous nuclear material being stored unsafely because of political inaction.

In the UK, nuclear is currently kept in safe but high-maintenance conditions, with some canisters deteriorating, at Sellafield in Cumbria. This is costing tax payers £3 billion per year.

The new geological disposal facility is a vast underground bunker, to be buried around 500m below the Earth's surface. It is intended to safely store approximately one Wembley Stadium's worth of highly that has been generated over the past 70 years. Here, it will be isolated from the biosphere—and human populations—for the 100,000 years it will take for the radioactivity to decay to safe levels.

Radioactive waste is generated from , military uses and also the extensive use of isotopes in medicine. The most highly radioactive portion comes from spent —the used uranium fuel from inside nuclear reactors and the materials produced through recycling of spent nuclear fuel. The latter includes fission products that are transformed to glass and plutonium (which is currently neither a resource nor a waste).

Nuclear waste is piling up – governments need to stop dithering and take action
Different ways of storing nuclear waste. Credit: Claire Corkhill, Author provided

These materials contain radioactive isotopes that have half-lives (the amount of time taken for half of the radioactivity to decay) of tens to hundreds of thousands of years. This means any storage solution must be extremely long-lived. That's a significant challenge—the oldest known man-made materials are of the order of several thousands of years old.

The principle of geological disposal of nuclear waste is to use multiple barriers, much like a set of Russian Dolls. This makes it possible to contain the waste and prevent it from meeting with groundwater which would start to dissolve it—releasing radioactive materials to the environment. Engineered barriers are intended to contain the waste until most of the radioactivity has decayed.

If the disposal vaults are dug in a good, impermeable rock (such as clay or mudstone), the geology provides a natural barrier that will isolate the waste from the biosphere. This will reduce the likelihood of human intrusion into the facility. Being several hundreds of metres below the ground, there will also be long transport pathways to delay any significant migration of radioactive materials from the waste to the biosphere until far into the future.

Nuclear waste is piling up – governments need to stop dithering and take action
Underground in one of the disposal vaults at Onkalo in Finland. Credit: Claire Corkhill, Author provided

International issue

The UK is not the only country opting for this solution. In Finland, construction of the Onkalo facility has already begun. A license application has even been made to start disposing of spent nuclear fuel.

But progress in other nations has stalled: in France protesters surround the disposal facility in the village of Bure, while in Sweden, the Environmental Court has rejected the construction license for a facility near the coastal town of Forsmark, due to safety concerns over the corrosion resistance of copper canisters.

In the U.S., senators are suing the Federal Government for not building a disposal facility. The lack of a disposal facility has meant that thousands of metric tonnes of spent nuclear fuel, have built up—stored temporarily in dry casks at sites across the country.

The controversy is expected to extend to the UK's new geological disposal siting process. Recent media articles have criticized the idea that see all areas of the UK—including national parks—could be suitable to host a facility. A previous siting process, launched in 2003, failed to find a site. Although two local authorities from near the Sellafield site came forward, Cumbria County Council was able to veto the vote.

The government hopes that new communities will step forward in this second process. It has proposed an incentive package offering communities £1m per year for having discussions about hosting the facility. This will increase to £2.5m per year when geological investigations are undertaken.

But environmentalists are likely to object, as they fear a better storage facility will only lead to more nuclear power stations. And indeed, Oliver Eden, former parliamentary undersecretary for energy under Theresa May's government between 2017-2019, highlighted the disposal facility as being "the key to the future of the UK's new nuclear build program … providing a safe and secure way to dispose of the waste new nuclear reactors produce."

Whatever the outcome of the current siting process, something must be done about . Leaving it for our grandchildren to deal with is simply not fair. What's more, we can't assume that future civilizations will be able to keep it safe.

The first step on the road to a solution is to initiate a public conversation about what we should do with the world's most dangerous materials in the long term. If you are interested, a good first step could be to watch the video above and start discussing the topic with your friends, family and local authorities.


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Citation: Nuclear waste is piling up: Governments need to stop dithering and take action (2019, September 26) retrieved 20 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-09-nuclear-piling-dithering-action.html
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Sep 28, 2019
"Nuclear manages all of its waste responsibly - while fossil fuels spew into the air, and wind and solar create larger environmental externalities."

What about the waste?
"Every Wind Turbine and Solar Panel Built Today Will Be Scrap Metal by 2050" - Jun 2019
https://www.ameri...tal-2050
"Solar panels ... only lasting 3 to 9 years"
https://www.youtu...lzUhitx8
https://www.npr.o...d-energy

"What about the waste?"
nuclear:
- never hurts anyone
- forever contained
- low & declining radiation
- tiny amount - already paid for
solar:
- sent to poor nations
- forever toxic
- uncontained
- 200x more than nuc waste
- burden on future generations
https://www.forbe...c-waste/

Sep 28, 2019
The worst part is, we already have the right solution: TWRs. Burn it all up and make electricity out of it. But no one will try to implement it.

Sep 28, 2019
The first step on the road to a solution is to initiate a public conversation about what we should do with the world's most dangerous materials in the long term. If you are interested, a good first step could be to watch the video above and start discussing the topic with your friends, family and local authorities.
Apparently there are nuclear engineers with PhDs who were never informed about the molten-salt reactor experiment. So the solution is simple. Finish burning the waste in a molten-salt reactor -- if the waste is still radioactive then it still has energy to do useful work. I think there are already several companies working to produce suitable reactors.

Sep 28, 2019
Even molten salt reactors can have a thermal excursion: what's normally called a "meltdown." TWR's can't; they don't have enough active material in any one place. I really suggest you check them out, @Proto.

Sep 28, 2019
The worst part is, we already have the right solution: TWRs. Burn it all up and make electricity out of it. But no one will try to implement it.
Still in the development stage? How does it work?

Sep 28, 2019
Even molten salt reactors can have a thermal excursion: what's normally called a "meltdown." TWR's can't; they don't have enough active material in any one place. I really suggest you check them out, @Proto.
I don't think the term "meltdown" applies to these types of reactors because the fuel is molten salt. Also, the salt mix is solid at room temperature, so if a leak occurs the salt freezes and forms a plug. Another very cool aspect is the reactor follows the load -- if the fuel gets too hot, the salt mix expands which increases the distance between nuclei, and thereby dampens the chain reaction. Operationally, they're characterized as walk-away safe. If a jet were to crash into it, during an earthquake, while all the workers went on strike, there would be no explosion or meltdown whatsoever.

Sep 28, 2019
So... no more dithering then?

Sep 28, 2019
Turns out that the TWR design goes back to the 1940s.

As for MSRs, they are not vulnerable to excursions, but they are also very expensive. Furthermore, current designs do not eliminate radioactive waste; they make less than a LWR, but they still make it.

I'm not necessarily against them, but I don't think they bring the benefits you are touting. I think the anti-nuke crowd is going to be on them like stink on shit. Show one burning waste and we'll chat. If you can't, then don't dis TWRs.

Oct 04, 2019
I'm not necessarily against them, but I don't think they bring the benefits you are touting. I think the anti-nuke crowd is going to be on them like stink on shit. Show one burning waste and we'll chat. If you can't, then don't dis TWRs.
Huh? Wasn't dissing something i know nothing about -- i asked you how they worked.

For the MSRs i think you can just add thorium to sustain the reaction while the waste fuel keeps absorbing neutrons and undergoing more fission until the end of the specific decay-chain where it produces stable isotopes. They may still be doing research on that part of it. Lotta lotta good videos on youtube about them, hard to see a down side to the thorium fuel cycle (other than it's nuclear power)...

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