Nuclear energy is often touted as an answer to climate change for its potential as an efficient means of energy production in a decarbonized energy industry of the future. We already have nuclear energy infrastructure around the world, it releases no greenhouse gases, and it’s a potent means of energy generation, but nuclear is still a hard sell in much of the world. This is in part due to high profile nuclear disasters, such as Three Mile Island, Fukushima, and Chernobyl, which loom large in the public consciousness. It’s also due to the fact that spent nuclear fuel, while it doesn’t contribute any greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, is nevertheless a huge hazard to public health and safety, as it stays radioactive for many, many more generations than will benefit from the energy it produces. While most types of nuclear waste have a half-life of mere tens of thousands of years, Chlorine-36 stays radioactive for 300,000 years and neptunium-237 boasts a half-life of a whopping 2 million years.
“The typical nuclear power plant creates about 2,300 tons of waste annually,” reports Big Think. “99 reactors are currently employed in the United States. That's a lot of waste per year. The US is currently stockpiling 75,000 tons of nuclear waste. It is carefully stored and maintained. However, just like anything else it is vulnerable to natural disasters, human error, even terrorism.”
As Oilprice reported earlier this year, this isn’t just a public safety issue, it’s also a public spending issue. “All this radioactivity amounts to a huge amount of maintenance to ensure that our radioactive waste is being properly managed throughout its extraordinarily long shelf life and isn’t endangering anyone. And, it almost goes without saying, all this maintenance comes at a cost.” In the United States, the crushing cost of nuclear waste maintenance is weighing heavily on taxpayers. In 2019 the cost clocked in at a staggering $7.5 billion, a number that only continues to grow.
The United States is not the only country struggling with a nuclear waste problem--not by a long shot. According to Engineering & Technology, nuclear waste is a pressing issue in Europe and especially in the UK. “Under European law, all countries that create radioactive waste are obliged to find their own disposal solutions – shipping nuclear waste is not generally permitted except in some legacy agreements. However, when the first countries charged into nuclear energy generation (or nuclear weapons research), disposal of the radioactive waste was not a major consideration. For several of those countries, like the UK, that is now around 70 years ago, and the waste has been ‘stored’ rather than disposed of. It remains a problem.”
Plenty of research and design spending has gone toward figuring out what to do with nuclear waste. The UK has opted to bury their problems down deep and maintain a stiff upper lip through the development of geological disposal facilities (GDF), “a waste disposal method that involves burying nuclear waste deep, deep underground in a cocoon of backfill, most commonly comprised of bentonite-based cement.” Meanwhile, taking a slightly more sci-fi approach, Nobel prize winner Gérard Mourou has suggested blasting nuclear waste with lasers to render it benign.
And, believe it or not, there exists an even more fantastical potential solution to dealing with nuclear waste. Researchers from the UK’s University of Bristol “have invented a method to encapsulate nuclear waste within diamonds, which as a battery, can provide a clean energy supply lasting in some cases, thousands of years,” says Big Think. Diamonds are about to be a lot more than just a girl’s best friend.
“The radiation is locked safely away inside the gemstone. All the while, it generates a small, steady stream of electricity. Nickel–63, an unstable isotope, was used in this first experiment. It created a battery with a half-life of a century.” This method would not only safely dispose of nuclear waste, but it would also create a new form of clean energy production with “no emissions, no moving parts, no maintenance, and zero concerns about safety” in a win-win of nearly unthinkable proportions.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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