What Are We Doing About Nuclear Waste?


 |  The Starfish

On February 24th, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and seized the northern part of the country as it secured the shortest route from Belarus to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. It was a shocking declaration of war, made even more so by their first objective – Chernobyl (https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60528828). Chernobyl is probably a familiar name to you. It was the site of the worst nuclear accident in history – a catastrophic explosion at a Soviet nuclear power plant. The fire raged on for days, burning radioactive material and turning it into a nuclear ash that spread across Europe. This disaster contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and created a massive exclusion zone in Ukraine and Belarus due to contamination (https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx).

 The radioactive exclusion zone has largely kept people out of the area, which is why the world was shocked to hear that it had turned into a warzone. Early reports of fighting around the Chernobyl plant has recently raised fears that the nuclear waste storage had been destroyed by the fighting when radiation levels spiked (https://www.fxstreet.com/news/nuclear-waste-storage-facility-destroyed-in-chernobyl-amid-russia-ukraine-fighting-nbc-202202241451). However, the latest reports indicate that the increase in radiation was likely due to contaminated soil being disturbed by heavy vehicles, and that the containment structures remain intact (https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60528828). 

Everyone has been holding their breath, worried about what Russia plans to do with the dangerously contaminated site. After the meltdown, the exclusion zone was used to store the radioactive waste of the nuclear plant, much of it unsecured (https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2022-02-25/ukraine-nuclear-agency-reports-higher-chernobyl-radiation-levels-due-to-heavy-military-equipment), as well as nuclear waste from other Ukrainian reactors (https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/02/24/most-immediate-nuclear-danger-in-ukraine-isn-t-chernobyl-pub-86521). 

While there has been concern that the nuclear waste left in Chernobyl could be made into a dirty bomb (https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/emergency/dirty_bombs.htm#:~:text=What%20is%20a%20%22dirty%20bomb,localized%20area%20around%20an%20explosion.) to intentionally spread radiation, Russia has it’s own waste stockpile and would not need to capture Chernobyl to create these weapons. There still remains the risk of an accidental radiation leak, such as a damaged silo, which has led the Ukrainian Prime Minister to call the capture of Chernobyl a “declaration of war against all of Europe (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/live-blog/russia-ukraine-conflict-live-updates-n1289655/ncrd1289759#blogHeader). 

Unfortunately, Chernobyl isn’t the only place in Ukraine with nuclear waste. Ukraine has 4 nuclear plants containing 15 reactors, supplying a large amount of the nation’s energy (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/chernobyl-isnt-biggest-nuclear-risk-ukraines-active-nuclear-power-plan-rcna17697). With the exception of some waste diverted to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, those reactors keep most of their nuclear waste on site in concrete casks sitting out in an open air yard (https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/nuclear-waste-stored-in-shocking-way-120-miles-from-ukrainian-front-line), vulnerable to accidental breach.

This careless, haphazard approach to highly radioactive waste seems extremely unreliable  to the casual observer. Decades of spent fuel and contaminated equipment is sealed in concrete cylinders with limited life expectancy and just piled up. And Ukraine is not an outlier – they are just doing the same thing as everyone else.

We’ve been generating large amounts of radioactive waste for about 80 years, since the Manhattan Project, and most of the radioactive waste generated by the American nuclear program was put in temporary holding containers. Those containers are still standing and actively leaking in Hanford, Washington, and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina (https://cen.acs.org/environment/pollution/nuclear-waste-pilesscientists-seek-best/98/i12). The US is not alone in leaving their nuclear waste in temporary storage for far longer than it should be. To date, it’s the only solution that people have agreed on. The exact short-term storage methods vary slightly, but almost no nuclear waste has been permanently disposed of. 

The good news is that most of our nuclear waste is not plutonium or uranium. These elements, and their periodic neighbours, the transuranic elements, are incredibly radioactive and volatile (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK218114/). Those properties make them useful when trying to create energy but simultaneously make them a lot more dangerous to humans and the environment.

    Most nuclear waste is low-level and include things used around nuclear reactions which absorb radiation over time, such as the concrete of the buildings or the cleaning rags. These materials can be isolated for a few decades until they stop emitting significant amounts of  radiation (https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-waste-management.aspx). 

This low-level radioactive waste, however, is not the main concern when it comes to nuclear waste storage. The main concern stems from intermediate-level and high-level wastes. Intermediate-level wastes include chemical sludges left over from the refinery process and metal shielding used in the generators, such as the leaking contains of sludge in Hanford.

High-level waste is mostly used fuel, which are rods of mixed metals left behind by nuclear fission and containing low levels of transuranic elements. This high-level waste can remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, with researchers planning up to 150,000 years in the future regarding their storage (https://cen.acs.org/environment/pollution/nuclear-waste-pilesscientists-seek-best/98/i12). 

Really, there are only 3 things you can do to get rid of anything that will last 150,000 years. The first is to simply use it up. Uranium used in power generation is not too dissimilar from coal or natural gas. When used in nuclear fission, uranium atoms literally break apart and form lighter elements, releasing energy in the process. That released energy is what a nuclear power plant converts to electricity. The uranium is not completely used up, but the material can be recycled and refined to about 96% efficiency, and recycling spent fuel reduces the amount of nuclear waste produced by about 85% (https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nuclear-wastes/radioactive-waste-management.aspx).

    Recycling spent fuel is incredibly efficient; we’re now producing only 15% of the high-level radioactive waste we once did to get the same amount of energy. The only problem is that remaining 15%, and additionally, the 80 years of backlog. Recycling is good, but by it’s nature it’s not the ultimate solution.

So, what about option number two – if we can’t use it up, can we launch it into space? Long story short, no, absolutely not. Ignoring the consequences of a failed launch in the upper atmosphere dispersing a cloud of radioactive particles, there is currently over 90,000 tons of nuclear waste in the US alone (https://cen.acs.org/environment/pollution/nuclear-waste-pilesscientists-seek-best/98/i12). It would take over 1650 of the largest rocket ever launched, the Saturn V, just to get them into orbit, and you need to go even further than than that to escape Earth’s gravity (https://www.universetoday.com/129989/saturn-v-vs-falcon-heavy/). Keep in mind that these are  estimates for the US alone, which has less than a quarter of the world’s nuclear power plants.

So that leaves one solution for nuclear waste – digging a big hole and throwing everything down there. The “dig a deep hole and drop everything down it” is the thought process behind Deep Geologic Nuclear Waste Repositories, our best solution to radioactive waste. Engineers drill into solid bedrock to create the repository, and the nuclear waste is encased in glass to prevent it from chemically reacting with air and water (https://cen.acs.org/environment/pollution/nuclear-waste-pilesscientists-seek-best/98/i12) before the glass-coated waste is delivered to its resting spot by a robot.

    Obviously with the longevity of the waste and the near-zero fail rate required, there are a lot of criteria for this hole. The critical requirement is that it must be geologically stable so that earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or heat from decomposing radioactive waste don’t crack the tunnels and breach containment (https://www-nature-com.ezproxy2.lib.sfu.ca/articles/466804a). It also has to be deep enough that once radioactive ions do leak out of containment and up to the surface or into the surrounding water, that they are not in hazardous levels (https://www.andra.fr/cigeo/proteger-des-dechets-les-plus-dangereux/seule-solution-pour-isoler-les-dechets-radioactifs). We’ve done a lot of research and found some locations of interest, however, many of these locations have yet to be converted into underground storage. 

If underground storage is our best option, you may be asking why we’re still using temporary storage for the majority of our nuclear waste. Why do Canadian power plants have warehouses full of steel and concrete bins full of spent fuel rods – a solution designed to only hold waste for 50 years rather than the hundreds of thousands of years required (https://www.nwmo.ca/en/Canadas-Plan/Canadas-Used-Nuclear-Fuel/How-Is-It-Stored-Today)? Why do only a small handful of places have any underground storage at all? 

Honestly, there isn’t a good answer to why these repositories haven’t been built yet beyond them being moderately expensive and sort of a bother. It was pretty easy to keep building new storage tanks with a 50 year life expectancy. Europe finally started researching deep geologic repositories about 50 years after constructing their first nuclear reactors, presumably because that’s when their storages were expected to start failing (https://international.andra.fr/sites/international/files/2019-03/CMHM_2015_Version2017_EN_relu_planche_1.pdf). 

In North America opposition to repositories came down to the sentiment of “Not in My Backyard” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Not-in-My-Backyard-Phenomenon), with fierce opposition from locals and lawmakers whenever a site is proposed. It’s certainly an ominous prospect to have nuclear waste under your town for 150,000 years, and the American public has long held strong reservations about nuclear energy in general (https://news.gallup.com/poll/190064/first-time-majority-oppose-nuclear-energy.aspx). 

 The United States actually planned a deep geological waste repository for all their waste decades ago, but it never got a barrel in the ground. The American site, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, was never chosen for it’s geologic stability. It was chosen because politicians from everywhere else didn’t want the waste stored in their home states. This project was canceled for many reasons, including that it was planned 35 years ago and the original proposed site would run out of space in just 15 years (https://ag.nv.gov/Hot_Topics/Issue/Yucca/), meaning it no longer suits the needs of the naton. 

This anti-repository sentiment seemed to be validated when a small test site, the only American deep geologic nuclear repository, suffered a fire and leak in 2014 (https://www-nature-com.ezproxy2.lib.sfu.ca/articles/509267a). Luckily, nuclear waste is not as volatile as a nuclear weapon or even a reactor malfunction. The 2014 leak didn’t surpass the radiation exposure limit even for the workers directly affected despite multiple things going wrong, proving that even the scariest events result in manageable issues with the proper facilities.

Outside of the test site and the failed Yucca Mountain project, the US currently has no plans to deal with nuclear waste (https://www.wsj.com/articles/escape-from-yucca-mountain-biden-administration-promises-progress-on-nuclear-waste-11620984602). Canada is working towards finding a new site for their own nuclear waste repository after the Saugeen Ojibway Nation vetoed the construction of one in Kincardine, Ontario (https://www.opg.com/strengthening-the-economy/our-projects/the-deep-geologic-repository/). This new project raises the exciting opportunity to permanently solve Canada’s growing nuclear waste buildup.

    Back in Europe, Finland is currently in the process of digging the world’s first ever deep geologic nuclear waste repository for high-level waste (https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2021/05/31/finland-breaks-ground-on-its-deep-geologic-nuclear-waste-repository/?sh=6dd8a4a86103). Unlike the American test site, a disused mine, the Finnish repository is being drilled explicitly to store nuclear waste in a geologically stable environment. This world first will be big enough to handle all of Finland’s waste, but the relatively small nation won’t be able to handle a global issue alone.

With Finland blazing the trail, many other European nations are starting to get to work on creating underground long term storage for high-level waste, with French nuclear scientists claiming that the European public doesn’t view nuclear energy as a political issue in the same way the US does (https://www-nature-com.ezproxy2.lib.sfu.ca/articles/466804a). France is well on track to start construction of their own storage after decades of research.

Decades of waste is not going away on its own, and even a deep geologic repository in crisis is safer than rows of leaking tanks along the Columbia River. A deep geologic repository will never cause the world to hold its breath, fearing a stray mortar as we now do with Chernobyl. The solutions exist – it’s time to stop passing the buck. Pay the bill, and dig a big hole.

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