Every nuclear power plant in the world creates nuclear waste. We aren’t talking about something with a 10 year life span, but waste that will take 300 years to more than 100,000 years to decay to safe environmental levels. The problem of disposal continues to present problems especially now when so many nuclear reactors have reached the end of their life spans. A lot of proposals have been thrown out there but no real resolution has been reached.
Ezra Gold, a student at the University of Rochester, provides an overview of three ways to take care of spent fuel. One is short term storage. The second is long term storage and the last is transmutation (also known as “recycling) or changing the fuel from a highly radioactive substance to a less radioactive substance for use in other types of reactors.
The August 2009 edition of Scientific American, carried an article, “Is There a Place for Nuclear Waste?” that discussed current methods of disposing of nuclear waste and some proposed future methods. The current method is to remove the spent fuel (fuel is considered spent after three to six years in a nuclear reactor) and submerge it in a concrete and steel lined pool of water for about 10 years. After the initial submersion in water to cool off the spent fuel, the fuel is removed in steel casings that are placed in a concrete cask for storage on site.
Recycling was banned in the US in 1976 by President Ford. Since recycling the spent fuel meant the creation of Plutonium as part of the process. It was deemed to risky. Plutonium is a weapons grade fuel that posed a potential security problem if it was ever stolen.
The challenging storage problem is the removal and storage of actinides that are created during the fission process. Actinides have half-lives in the hundreds of thousands of years and need to be disposed of in such a way that they don’t pose a security risk, or harm to humans or the environment.
The consensus among nations with nuclear reactors, is that long term disposal of highly radioactive materials requires a deep geological repository. As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has stated:
The safety of geological disposal is widely accepted amongst the technical community and a number of countries have now decided to move forward with this option. . . Strategies for storage and disposal need careful consideration in light of the many issues involved. These include transport
of radioactive wastes from storage sites to disposal sites, security of the waste, retrievability of the waste from storage, safe packaging and conditioning of waste for long term storage and disposal, availability of suitable disposal sites, confidence that adequate levels of safety can be achieved, and the availability of finances.
Finding that repository is proving to be a problem in many countries resulting in a nuclear waste problem.
Several proposed sites for the United States such as deep sea burial, Columbia River basalt, Carlsbad Caverns, and Yucca Mountain, all have significant problems that should rule them out of contention. However, politics has a way of ignoring any negative issues, if enough money is involved. That’s how we got Yucca Mountain as a proposed site courtesy of a 1987 amendment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. President Obama’s administration has nixed that idea, although it could be resurrected at some future date.
Thirteen years ago, a research study at the University of Rochester, showed that stored nuclear material at a closed nuclear reprocessing center in West Valley, NY was leaking into two streams. The contamination is not harmful but does point to potential problems with other more dangerous sites. Luckily, other nuclear facilities in New York state were not leaking.
The IAEA, was created in 1957 within the United Nations as the “Atoms for Peace” program. The IAEA works with UN member states to “promote safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies.” The organization provides independent regulatory oversight, education and research facilities for nations and organizations world wide. Another function is the development of security and safety measures for handling nuclear material.
The Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, entered into force on 18 June 2001, is considered an IAEA related treaty. The IAEA conducts regular review meetings of the signatories.
The objectives of this Convention are:
(i) to achieve and maintain a high level of safety worldwide in spent fuel and radioactive waste
management, through the enhancement of national measures and international co-operation,
including where appropriate, safety-related technical co-operation;
(ii) to ensure that during all stages of spent fuel and radioactive waste management there are
effective defenses against potential hazards so that individuals, society and the environment
are protected from harmful effects of ionizing radiation, now and in the future, in such a way
that the needs and aspirations of the present generation are met without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their needs and aspirations;
(iii) to prevent accidents with radiological consequences and to mitigate their consequences
should they occur during any stage of spent fuel or radioactive waste management
The Convention covers all aspects of spent fuel and radioactive waste containment and disposal. Each of the signatories, one of which is the US, has agreed to abide by safety guidelines set out in the convention.
The guidelines aren’t in dispute nor are the requirements for proper storage and disposal of radioactive waste. What has been and continues to be a problem is developing and selecting methods that meet all of the safety requirements.
According to an IAEA publication it isn’t just our current society that must be taken into account. Indeed,
Long term safety also requires that future societies will be in a position to exercise active control over these materials and maintain effective transfer of responsibility, knowledge and information from generation to generation. Long
term storage is only sustainable if future societies can maintain these responsibilities.
For the moment, the US is adopting the Scarlett O’Hara approach, we’ll think about that tomorrow. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has changed the “waste confidence doctrine” “which says that while there is no repository now, there is “reasonable assurance” that there will be one by 2025,” to “the waste can be stored in casks for decades at reactors with no environmental effect, until burial is available.” In other words, who knows when.
This result is that the NRC is accepting onsite storage as the long term solution for dealing with all nuclear waste. Sometime in the future, someone will come up with somewhere to actually dispose of it all.
In the meantime, the IAEA has stated that one “1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor produces 33 tons of spent fuel a year.” That’s a lot of nuclear waste that has been building up and continues to build up for onsite above ground storage. But, we don’t have to worry about that now, its an issue for a future generation.