Myth X – Disposal of nuclear waste is easily solved, indeed we’ve already sorted it out

While the critics of nuclear energy do tend to make hay out of the waste issue, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. A problem that is becoming ever more serious the longer it takes for us to do something about it.

Britain’s nuclear waste legacy currently consists of a dozen or so nuclear reactors requiring decommissioning and a current inventory of 111,489 tonnes of high to low level nuclear waste. Nuclear energy advocates often like to talk about this in terms of a bottle of wine sized container for everyone in the country….of course they neglect to point out that such a pile of wine bottles wouldn’t be the sort of stuff you’d put in your wine cellar and all of them together would fill the Albert hall several times over! The estimated cost of dealing with this waste pile is £73 Billion and counting…and that doesn’t yet fully factor in the long term waste disposal and storage costs.

The US waste bill is currently some $ 400 Billion (and counting). In includes a need to dispose of:

  • 52,000 tons of spend Fuel
  • 91 million gallons of radioactive fuel processing wastes (sludge’s & liquids)
  • 500,000 tons of Depleted Uranium
  • 265 million tons of mine tailings
  • 104 civilian nuclear power reactors (plus an additional number of several hundred research & military reactors).

While the figures below are a bit out of date, they should give you some idea of the scale of the problem.

The cheapest and easiest long term solution to this waste problem is to bury it underground in a deep geological storage facility. The problem here is two fold (three fold if we include the cost, but we’ll ignore that one for the time being) firstly, there are only a handful of locations with the right geology capable of taking the waste and secondly convincing the local populace to live on top of it! The Yucca mountain facility in America is now effectively dead, largely due to the storm of public opposition to such a facility. Although I would blame persistent NIMBYism for this than anything necessarily wrong with the Yucca mountain facility itself, or indeed the idea of deep geological storage in general. Even so, it highlights the problems likely to be encountered.

The current UK plan is to dispose of the stuff somewhere in Cumbria…or the Lake District as its known in the rest of the country! As with Yucca mountain I don’t think they’ve fully thought through the issue of inevitable public opposition to a large nuclear super dump build near to (or more than likely within) the boundaries of a National Park . Even though the plan hasn’t even been officially announced yet, grumblings of discontent are already brewing. I might add that technically the best place to dispose of the waste within the UK would be under the Dumfries and Galloway hills (which contain a large seam of granite rock) or in the South East of England (in the many deep salt caverns along the North Sea coast). Of course given the opposition of the Scottish parliament to Nuclear Energy and the large population density of the South East of England (more people = more NIMBY’s) one could argue that both of these locations would be non-starters from day one purely on political grounds.

Obviously it is not sensible, as Fukushima showed, to simply allow this nuclear waste to continue piling up in reactor cooling ponds or interim storage pens. Currently for example much of America’s high level reactor waste is stored in 191 on-site repositories next to the reactors themselves. A typical one of these repositories consists of large concrete and steel casks mounted out in the open. It would typically contain several thousand tons of spent fuel rods the equivalent of 10-20 times the radioactive payload of the reactor itself.

Storing waste permanently in these repositories is not a long-term solution. As all nuclear reactors are built near a large body of water (to supply emergency cooling), and near the destination for their power (cities). These repositories are highly vulnerable to collapse, if affected by a variety of natural disasters (a major hurricane, tornado, tsunami’s, floods, industrial accident, fire, sea level rise due to global warming) or a terrorist attack, with the potential to spread large amounts of radiation over densely populated areas. Either nations need to turn off nuclear power stations to cut off this flow of waste (which would of course not solve the existing waste problem one bit!) or they need to bite the bullet and get deep geological storage projects built, something the Finns at least are proceeding with doing, even if that means riding ruckshot over local NIMBY opposition (something that fortunately, the Finns at least for the moment haven’t had to do).

Aware that such deep storage projects are likely to prove highly unpopular nuclear power advocates have instead resorted to promoting more publicity friendly “silver bullet” solutions, which of course don’t work.

For example they advocate the reprocessing of spent fuel, not only to recover un-used fissile material, but also to reduce the amount of high level waste that needs to be disposed off (or so they claim). If there’s one thing the last few decades have proven it’s that reprocessing is a very effective way of burning through lots of cash and generating lots more nuclear waste that you finally have to get rid of. The cost of using reprocessed fuel is quite a good deal higher, the industry claims its economically viable (compared to disposal), but they frequently ignore the huge costs of reprocessing plants and fast reactors (Thorp £4 Billion+, Rokkasho $20 Billion and climbing, Superphenix € 9.1 Billion, we mentioned the $5.9 Billion price tag of Monju earlier). Greenpeace reckons MOX is 4 to 5 times higher than conventional once through fuelling, although some academics (anti-nuclear leaning admittedly) reckon it could be up to 20 times more expensive than the once through method, once you account for these costs. Either way, if the economics of once-through nuclear are shaky (see myth IV) we have to admit that those for reprocessed fuels are even worse and worse again for MOX.

And while reprocessing does reduce the quantity of high level waste, it tends to greatly increase the quantities of medium to low level waste you need to dispose of. The current policy of the UK, France and Japan – to flush the low level stuff into the sea (and cross our fingers) as well as leave the medium level stuff lying around in storage drums, isn’t a long term solution. This stuff will still need to be disposed of properly, probably again in some sort of deep geological storage facility.

Another favourite delusion of the Nuclear industry is to again resort to their favourite pin-up, the fast reactor (see myth VII), which they claim can be used to “burn” the more potent actinides down into less dangerous form.

Firstly, this policy ignores the fact that you’ll still have stuff coming out of the fast reactors which you won’t exactly want to put in you’re coffee. Some form of deep storage (probably thought without the same level of exacting standards) will still be required. Also even if we ignored all that was said about Fast reactors earlier (basically that they don’t work! see Myth VIII), and even if a major (and highly expensive) policy of building them was undertaken tomorrow it would take decades to build enough of them to handle our current inventory of nuclear waste, and further decades for them to actually process all of this waste. In other words we’d still need to have vast piles of nuclear waste sitting around for a good century or more in interim storage pens…again not a sensible solution.

Another point that seems to be forgotten about fast reactors, especially for anyone in the Anglosphere, is the not so small matter of geo-politics. Fast reactors can of course be used to not only break down Actinides but to make Plutonium. The US abandoned its fast reactor program back in the 1970’s as did Britain in the 1980’s. For either of these nations to build Fast Reactors again would now involve either reviving their Fast Reactor research programs, which would take a considerable period of time and be rather expensive. They could speed things up a bit though by doing a deal with the Russians, Japanese or Indians to get the technology off them. Given that Britain and the US have active nuclear weapons programs I think all of these countries would be reluctant, to say the least, about sharing such information with the British or Americans, indeed it could well be illegal under Non-proliferation Treaty rules. The US also does not posssess the facilities to reprocess its civil nuclear waste and would again need to acquire the technology to do this from somewhere and then build the necessary plant.

Equally if, say India, were to announce a plan to build twenty fast neutron reactors tomorrow I suspect they’d be getting angry phone calls from the White House, Kremlin and Beijing worried that these reactors might be modified, by a future Indian government, to produce Plutonium. The risk of which would likely provoke the Chinese and Pakistani’s to increase their production of nuclear weapons as a precaution. Which would of course result in the neighbours of all three countries, who lack nuclear weapons, thinking about possibly investing in them too….including Iran!

So in summary while there are solutions to our nuclear waste problem, the global nuclear industry is not taking the bull by the horns and pursuing them. The danger is that while nuclear reactors are indeed getting safer (not withstanding Fukushima, though anyone who understands the issues would know we were statistically overdue another nuclear accident anyway), the piles of accumulating nuclear waste and silly programs like MOX are largely offsetting these safety benefits with an ever growing waste problem. Sooner or later there will be an accident of some sorts, and a large release of radiation from these storage pens and then drastic action will need to be taken, which as things currently stand will probably involve a rapid phase out of nuclear power altogether. That is unless the nuclear industry bites the bullet and takes the necessary steps (and all the costs and negative publicity that this will involve) to solve the nuclear waste issue now, rather that constantly deferring it till another day.

About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
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16 Responses to Myth X – Disposal of nuclear waste is easily solved, indeed we’ve already sorted it out

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  14. Brian says:

    What are these pingback responses? Are they answers in the form of links to questions in the comments you don’t show?

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