Nuclear waste is an increasingly important topic of discussion in today’s society. With the advancement of nuclear science and technology, more waste has been produced and the question regarding the placement, destruction, or reprocessing of this waste has been debated in several countries including the United Kingdom, USA, and France.

First and foremost, it is necessary to go to the source of nuclear waste. Most nuclear waste comes from nuclear power plants. After a certain period, most of the reactivity of the nuclear material, usually Uranium-235, has subsided and thus is not longer capable of producing a specific quantity of energy needed to supply the energy market. Nuclear power plants supply approximately 17% of the world’s energy, and as this process is developed, a higher percentage is imminent in the future. Already 75% of France’s energy is produced by nuclear reactors. A smaller percentage of nuclear waste comes from professional and medical institutions that use radioactive materials for treatment and experimental purposes. Another source of nuclear waste is from disarmament of nuclear weapons. Disarmament of nuclear weapons also constitutes also a major percentage of the world’s nuclear waste produced in the world.

Nuclear Waste can be classified into two large subcategories: High-Level Waste (HLW) or Low-Level Waste (LLW). HLW’s include spent fuel from nuclear power plants and reprocessing waste from the refinement of nuclear materials. HLW’s generally include materials that that not only produce nuclides, but also heat, making them more dangerous to store. During reaction in a nuclear power plant, the Uranium releases neutrons, which collide with other Uranium atoms, stimulating them to release more neutrons and changing the atoms own atomic mass and atomic number. For example, U-235 can be converted to plutonium if one of these neutrons were to bombard it. These substances are now classified as transuranic elements, or heavier-than-uranium elements, which constitute most of the long-lived nuclear waste produced by nuclear power plants. Opposite of HLW, LLW’s include all other types of radioactive material that is not as highly active as HLW’s. The average LLW activity is between 0.1-2,500 curies/cubic foot. Examples of LLW’s include those radioactive materials from medical institutions and some byproducts of nuclear power plants such as contaminated metals or water used in the processing of nuclear energy. Furthermore, Low-Level Waste products can be further split into 4 different subcategories based on activity. These categories are Classes A, B, C, and GTCC level waste, A being the least active and GTCC being most active. In regards to different longevities of radioactive materials, LLW includes both short-lived and long-lived radionuclides.

There are some obvious problems associated with the nuclear waste that might affect the entire world population. It is known that decaying radioactive substances release radiation in the form of alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays. This radiation is known to cause genetic mutations that eventually lead to cancer. Large doses of radiation, for instances exposure from a nuclear blast, can cause death within a matter of days depending on the penetration levels of the radioactivity. If crucial cells, mainly of the heart and brain, are affected, cancer and death are nearly inevitable. Radioactivity has the characteristic of being long-lived. This means that even if an organism affected by radioactivity dies, another organism that consumes the dead organism will also be affected. From here, an entire food chain could be affected with concentration levels increasing as you climb up the food chain. Currently there are issues regarding the leakage of radioactivity from storage sites into ground water. This “heavy” ground water, known as such because it contains an extra neutron in one or both of the hydrogen molecules, can affect us directly if we drink it. This radioactive substance can stay in our bodies and may eventually lead to cancer. The “heavy” ground water can also affect us indirectly. For instance, phytoplankton and zooplankton would probably be the first organisms to be affected by radioactive water. Fish then eat these “radioactive” plankton and are also affected. A bear then comes along and eats the contaminated fish and is too affected by radioactivity. Man comes along, shoots the bear and eats its meat. Thus, man is also affected by radioactivity. In this way, it is not only important, but crucial that we take measures in lowering radioactive pollution but also lowering levels of nuclear waste being produced. If the nuclear waste were targeted first, then pollution would not be a problem.

Over the past several years, several suggestions have been made regarding proper disposal and storage for nuclear waste. However, most of the efforts in the past are expensive and require only storage of radioactive wastes, and have not solution on actually getting rid of them. This is a problem because if we continue to store our waste, then storage facilities will become full and successive generations will have to deal with this problem. Yet another problem to long-term storage is ground movements and leakage. The earth’s crust is ever changing and although storage sites are chosen in places where geologist deem most “dormant”, this situation might change in another 10,000 years. If the radioactive waste were to be leaked into the environment, there would be severe consequence as outlined above. Therefore, the solution to disposal and/or storage of nuclear waste must not create solutions for the present and problems for the future, but should create complete solutions that will not affect the future. It is because of the waste’s longevity that all current and past solutions to this problem incomplete and create problems for future generations. Already opposition to storage of nuclear waste has sprung from grass-roots movements, NGOs and other environmentally concerned organizations. However, they too do not have a solution. Some say that we should eliminate the use of nuclear power plants. This measure is ridiculous because 17% of the world’s energy is supplied by nuclear power plants, and if we discontinue this energy source, we must find different and cost effective energy production methods which are not available presently. Considering that nuclear power plants replaced coal, oil and gas power plants because it was deemed to be less polluting and healthier for the environment, we should not revert back to our old methods and technology when our goal is to go to less polluting, energy proficient ways of producing energy. Others say that we should ban the use of radioactive substances all together. This too is absurd because there are several benefits to radioactive substances such as treatment of cancer, other medical uses such as tracers, and the advancement of the scientific knowledge through experimentation of radioactive substances. As you can see, radioactive substances do have both a positive side and negative side to them. However, because of its dangerous side effects, most people tend to focus on the negative problems and ignore the advantagesof nuclear power.

There have been several suggestions about what should be done about nuclear waste. They are listed as follows:

1) Package the nuclear waste, put them in a rocket, and fire it toward the sun. This suggestion is plausible but extremely dangerous, unpredictable, and costly. It is extremely dangerous because of possible flaws in the rocket's design and engineering that might cause the rocket to explode prematurely, and because the transportation of the radioactive chemicals is extremely dangerous. Because of the dangers involved, not many scientific studies have been conducted to conclude whether or not it is safe to transport and subject radioactive substances to the extremes of space, and the reaction once the rocket crashed into the sun is entirely unknown. This suggestion is costly because of the amount of investment needed to finance the rockets, engineering team, scientific experts, and transportation costs necessary for such a project. Because of the growing amount of nuclear waste in the world, several rockets will have to be launched, adding more to the cost of this project.
2) Storage of nuclear waste in active trenches so they are crushed and melted by the earth’s crust movements. Once again, this suggestion is unpredictable and also dangerous. It is unpredictable because we don’t know exactly when the tectonic plates will shift pushing the waste into the mantle. This suggestion is also dangerous because if one of the containers were to burst from the high pressure, it would spread radioactive material into the sea, harming aquatic life and perhaps having an effect on the entire food chain.
3) Storage of nuclear waste in geologically stable environments. This is what several countries are doing at this moment. The United States of America has been investigating the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada for the past decade and have deemed it a possible site for waste storage. In the United Kingdom, Sellafield has storage sites as well as Thorp. As stated earlier, this does not do anything to correct the problem, but to put the problems aside for future generations.
4) Reprocessing of nuclear waste/fuel. This is also what countries are undertaking presently to minimize the amount of waste that goes into storage. This involves extracting uranium from nuclear waste to be reused. Sellafield in the UK is a major reprocessing site responsible for the refining of waste from countries such as France, Switzerland, and Japan. This seems to be a good plan, however, reprocessing does not completely get rid of the waste. The byproducts of reprocessing are still radioactive and must be stored, again creating problems for future generations.
5) Stop the usage of nuclear fuel and building of nuclear weaponry. Although stopping the advancement of nuclear weaponry would benefit all of man, stopping the usage of nuclear fuel as a source of energy is not beneficial at the present time. If a new method of energy production were to be discovered, possibly cold fusion between deuterium molecules or nitrogen based fuel sources, then it would be imaginable that we could scrap the use of uranium and plutonium as energy supplies. However, through years of research, it has been proven that by splitting the bonds inside the atom, a huge amount of energy can be extracted and processed, so it would seem that our best fuel source in terms of power production and efficiency, is nuclear power.

In conclusion, although we have greatly benefited from the advancement of nuclear science, we are also subjected to a great burden that we must remove before it gets too late. A clean, reliable, and pragmatic method of waste removal, storage, and/or destruction must be implemented; however, science and research have proved to be futile in this field of science. Perhaps in the future, a new and innovative method of waste destruction will be created. But for now, efforts must go on in either finding a new way of efficiently producing energy for the mass market. Already, research has gone into nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission, which leaves almost no harmful byproducts and releases a huge amount of energy. Hopefully, we can propose a better solution than storage for nuclear waste in the future.

Source: J.Sy; British School in the Netherlands