As countries look for alternative energy production for greater energy security, concerns remain around the disposal of nuclear waste as governments establish new nuclear energy strategies for the coming decades. At present, there is no one accepted ideal nuclear waste disposal method, meaning that different countries have varying levels of success in getting rid of their waste safely, with scientists and governments around the world continuing to look for the best long-term solution.
Around 350,000 tonnes of nuclear waste from decades past is sitting in temporary storage containers, some of which are gradually eroding, while politicians continue to discuss a longer-term solution. In the U.S., the government has long talked about storing this waste below the Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But, due to strong opposition from the state, this plan has never come to fruition. Various other plans have come and gone, bringing the U.S. government back to square one each time.
There has been extensive talk by governments and scientists over which methods of disposal are most effective, with some states accusing others of not addressing the situation seriously enough. This conversation has been most prominent following the Chernobyl disaster 35 years ago. And, to this day, high levels of radioactivity are present in many animals and plants across a large radius around the site.
The World Nuclear Association identifies the two main ways in which countries dispose of their nuclear waste. The first is near-surface disposal, at ground level or in caverns tens of meters below ground level. Countries including the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Japan, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the USA, Finland, and Sweden follow this method. The second is deep geological disposal, at a depth of 250 to 1000 meters for mined repositories, or 2000 to 5000 meters for boreholes. Several countries have explored this option, but few have put plans into practice. The U.S. currently does it for defense-related transuranic waste at WIPP, and Finland is building its first facility, which it hopes to become operational in 2023.
While many countries favor deep geological disposal as a long-term method, most face the challenge of finding a town, city, or state willing to take on this burden, with many scared for their safety. In the U.K., a facility of this nature is expected to cost around $14 billion. Finland’s new plant, the first of its kind, will have 100 nuclear waste disposal tunnels at a depth of more than 400 meters, with the hope of keeping the waste isolated for the required 100,000 years. Although, changes in world temperatures make this prediction less certain.
While nuclear power is quickly making its way back onto the agenda, with governments eagerly discussing ways to establish greater energy security and less reliance on Russia, and other states, the public is not so sure. In the U.K., it is estimated that the decommissioning of civil nuclear sites across the country could cost taxpayers around $153 billion, and sites won’t be considered safe to use in an unrestricted manner for around 120 years.
But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is confident that it is providing safe advice for the disposal of nuclear waste, in countries that are producing nuclear energy, which should help alleviate some of the public concerns.
The IAEA visits countries around the globe with nuclear programs to advise them on safety and best practices, for both nuclear plants and their waste. In addition, ARTEMIS missions are held in several countries to provide independent expert advice from an international team of specialists convened by the IAEA. They review national frameworks and programs for the management of spent fuel and radioactive waste, to ensure each country is disposing of its nuclear waste effectively.
In Canada, the government has decided to ask for public input on the situation. An online survey will be available until the 10th of June for members of the public to provide feedback on a five-year implementation plan for a proposed underground storage facility to store nuclear waste. It is thought that by involving the public, the government will gain greater support for the project, as well as be able to identify the best site for the facility.
But not everyone is relying on the government to come up with a solution, with scientists working independently for decades to see how they might best fix the problem. Specialists around the world have studied the main causes of the corrosion and degradation of nuclear waste storage materials to come up with a safer solution for people and the environment, even if only for the mid-term. And now some are coming up with innovative solutions for the disposal of this waste.
A father and daughter start-up called Deep Isolation may have a possible solution for U.S. waste. The duo plan to make commercial technology available to dig 18-inch-diameter holes deep into the Earth’s surface to then put radioactive nuclear waste in 14-foot-long containers down into the deep boreholes.
Deep Isolation has been working on the idea for the last six years. CEO Elizabeth Muller explains of the plan, “We didn’t invent the idea of using boreholes for disposal — that has been around since the 1980s.” But “Nobody had thought of using directional drilling. And so that was the key innovation that Deep Isolation brought” she stated. The potential to drill horizontally as well as vertically could create more storage space, according to Muller. And experts believe this slight variation of an existing method shows great potential.
So, will the public be convinced about nuclear power as new waste disposal methods crop up and the IAEA assures the public of the safety methods already being imposed? Due to the need to store nuclear waste for thousands of years until it becomes safe, it is unlikely that the public will be truly confident about their safety around nuclear waste facilities. However, novel ideas are showing greater promise, and the more hidden the waste (for example, if it is placed deep underground) the more likely the public will be to support nuclear programs.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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