Energy - Environment - Food and Water

Technical and Social Problems of Nuclear Waste

The waste forms produced during the process of generating nuclear energy constitute a nearly intractable management problem because of technical and social factors.

The waste forms produced during the process of generating nuclear energy constitute a nearly intractable management problem because of technical and social factors.

Technically, what makes dealing with some forms of nuclear waste so difficult is the presence of radioactive substances with extremely long half-lives, hundreds of thousands of years in some cases. Since radiation is hazardous to health, even at low levels, exposure to these wastes will be harmful to people and other living organisms as long as the wastes remain radioactive, and they have to be isolated from human contact for up to a million years. Such a need for stewardship is unprecedented in human history.

As explained in a review in WIREs Energy and Environment, the solution advocated by the nuclear industry and many scientific and technical bodies—disposing of these wastes deep underground, in repositories constructed in suitable geological media—still poses a long-term risk because, over the long timespan needed for the radioactivity to decay, any container or waste package will likely corrode and radioactive materials will percolate and contaminate ground water sources. Experiences of failures and accidents at pilot facilities also renders the long term safety of repositories a dubious proposition. Another technical method that is advocated by some in the nuclear industry as a way of managing radioactive wastes is called reprocessing, but that comes with its own set of problems and does not really eliminate any radioactive waste or make it easier to dispose of.

Socially, the main problem is the presence of significant public opposition, almost anywhere in the world, to such facilities. Substantial majorities of people consider nuclear waste with dread and do not approve plans to dispose of radioactive wastes near them, or, often, far away either. Public resistance has halted multiple proposals to set up sites to bury nuclear waste in several countries. The failure to set up repositories and thus seemingly solve the problem of nuclear waste has been one important factor that helped counter the propaganda effort by the nuclear industry to market nuclear power as a solution to climate change, and more generally make it harder to expand nuclear energy on a large scale. Conversely, the realization that nuclear waste is so difficult to deal with offers yet another reason to phase out nuclear energy.

 

Kindly contributed by M. V. Ramana.

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