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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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How To Solve Nuclear Energy’s Biggest Problem

Nuclear energy

Nuclear waste is a huge issue and it’s not going away any time soon--in fact, it’s not going away for millions of years. While most types of nuclear waste remain radioactive for mere tens of thousands of years, the half-life of Chlorine-36 is 300,000 years and neptunium-237 boasts a half-life of a whopping 2 million years. 

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, nuclear waste carries a particularly hefty cost.

Last year, in a hard-hitting expose on the nuclear industry’s toll on U.S. taxpayers, the Los Angeles Times reported that “almost 40 years after Congress decided the United States, and not private companies, would be responsible for storing radioactive waste, the cost of that effort has grown to $7.5 billion, and it’s about to get even pricier.” 

How much pricier? A lot. “With no place of its own to keep the waste, the government now says it expects to pay $35.5 billion to private companies as more and more nuclear plants shut down, unable to compete with cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources. Storing spent fuel at an operating plant with staff and technology on hand can cost $300,000 a year. The price for a closed facility: more than $8 million, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.” Related: Has Natural Gas Hit Rock Bottom?

With the United States as a poster child of what not to do with your nuclear waste, the United Kingdom is taking a much different tack. The UK is currently undertaking what the country’s Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) department says “will be one of the UK’s largest ever environmental projects.” This nuclear waste storage solution comes in the form of a geological disposal facility (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. This type of cement is able to absorb shocks and is ideal for containing radioactive particles in case of any failure. The GDF system would also be at such a depth that it would be under the water table, minimizing any risk of contaminating the groundwater.

According to reporting from Engineering & Technology, nuclear waste is a mounting issue in Europe and in the UK in particular. “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.”

In fact, not only does it remain a problem, it is a mounting problem. As nuclear waste has been improperly or shortsightedly managed in the past, the current administration can no longer avoid dealing with the issue. In the past the UK used its Drigg Low-Level Waste Repository on the Cumbrian Coast to treat low and intermediate level waste, but now, thanks to coastal erosion, the facility will soon begin leeching radioactive materials into the sea, although that might not be quite as scary as it sounds. Related: EIA Sees Lower Brent Prices On Fading Geopolitical Risk

“Back in 2014, the Environment Agency raised concerns that coastal erosion could result in leakage from the site within 100 to 1,000 years, although it was counter-claimed that the levels of radioactivity after such a time would be low enough to be harmless,” Engineering & Technology writes. “This would definitely not be the case for high-level wastes, where radioactivity could remain a hazard into and beyond the next ice age, hence the need for longer-term disposal.” 

Where exactly will that longer-term disposal be based? That’s up for debate. And it won’t be an easy thing to decide, as the RWM says that they will need a community to volunteer to be involved in such a costly, lengthy, and potentially unpopular project. And it’s not just an issue for the current inhabitants of potential locations in the UK, but for many generations to come over the next tens of thousands of years of radioactivity. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com


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  • Henry Hewitt on January 22 2020 said:
    Thanks Haley,
    Waste is an aspect of nuclear's 'problem[s]' which are not only cost, but risk. Most prudent investors, when they come to the PowerPoint slide that reads "Miracle Occurs Here" move on to the next pitch.

    Simply put, this technology is too expensive, too risky and too late. Infinitely scalable and virtually free PV renders its potential, which has always been on the edge of forever, and still is, unnecessary. Why won't 'free market' mavens invest in it? Why won't insurance companies insure against it? Have you read Rylands v Fletcher lately? Now ask your favorite accountant what the present value of an infinite future liability it. As the Economist cover story said right after Fukushima, Nuclear power is The Dream That Failed. As Obi-wan said: These aren't the kilowatt-hours you're looking for. Move along.
  • David Campbell on January 23 2020 said:
    The way halflife works, is the longer the duration of waste, the less radioactive it is. My understanding is Carbon-14 which is in our bodies has a halflife of 5000 years, and isn't dangerous. Something with a halflife of 100,000 years is essentially not radioactive at all.

    What is dangerous is stuff with a fast halflife. Hours is worse than days, which is worse than weeks, etc. This means that the dangers of nuclear waste very quickly drops away as time does away with the hard stuff.

    This means the most dangerous waste is the stuff that lasts for a mere hundred(s) of years, as its dangerous enough to health but also has to be managed beyond a reasonable time frame as it relies on future generations. However by the time that comes around the dangers would be largely diminished already.

    The other thing that should be considered is how well stored and how little waste we are talking about here. In no other industry or process is the waste so perfectly entrapped and managed. As an example look at coal. The ash tailings ponds are gigantic and are poisonous waste lands. Ironically they emit more hazardous radiation than nuclear power plants, but get a regulatory pass since this radioactivity is from "natural" sources. These places are insanely dangerous. The amount of accidents are inexcusable.

    The newest developments in nuclear reactor design, incorporating liquid fuels allows for reprocessing of this waste. This waste is solid, and was deemed waste because it loses it's structural integrity, not because its lost it's energy capacity. Only about 5% of its energy has been burned. Classic light water or heavy water plants are massively fuel inefficient. With molten salt reactors one could liquify this waste and pass it back into a reactor allowing for chemical separation and a full burn. One could power new generation on this waste alone in some cases. The waste from these new designs is far less radioactive and far less in quantity.

    Some British scientists figured out just last week how to turn nuclear waste into diamond encapsulated batteries that last nearly forever. One could build amazing new inventions or improve existing ones. Think pacemakers for example.

    If I had real money and clout I'd be buying nuclear waste. To me it's not waste at all. It's an amazing source of energy, with secondary benefits such as space travel and nuclear medicine are possible once reprocessing is done using technology that is close to commercial viability.
  • Art Curtis on January 23 2020 said:
    There are several problems with this article:
    1. The dangerously radioactive components of spent power reactor fuel are the short-lived fission products, such as Sr-90 and Cs-137. Currently, spent fuel rods are allowed to cool in pools onsite at nuclear power plants until they have decayed sufficiently for them to be safely handled and the rods placed in on-site dry cask storage.
    2. Waste re-processing, which is currently done in France, can separate these fission products and Pu-239 from the waste. The fission products can then be disposed of underground and the plutonium can be used to fabricate mixed oxide (MOX) fuel that can be "burned" in a conventional light water power reactor.
    3. Most of the waste consists of non-fissile U-238, which could be used in a fast breeder reactor to make Pu-239, which can be used as fuel, greatly reducing the volume of the waste. Other long-lived radionuclides in the waste can be buried in a waste disposal facility.

    There is no need to abandon nuclear power, which provides 55% of the carbon-free electricity generated in the US, 70% of the electricity generated in France and 45% of the electricity generated in Sweden. Research and development of advanced reactor designs can make power reactors inherently safer and significantly reduce the waste stream from nuclear power plants.

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