Nuclear waste – are there green solutions to the problem?

su Nuclear waste – are there green solutions to the problem?

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The Scream - by Edvard MuchCountries like France get up to 80% of their power from nuclear power plants.  The US gets about 20% from nuclear power – but we produce more waste products than the French do.  Is there a solution?  Will be be buried under a mountain of nuclear waste?  Read on!

In my last post on nuclear power, I talked about how nuclear power works, and whether the technology is safe and/or green.  I had some good feedback from that, and decided that the topic of nuclear waste would be a good second post on the subject.  So, how is nuclear waste generated?  What is it exactly?  And are the any solutions?

As you probably already know, nuclear waste is the byproduct of a nuclear fission process.  Fission is where the atoms in a radioactive material (usually Uranium) split, making other elements and giving off heat.  The products of a uranium fission are usually iodine, caesium, strontium, xenon, and barium, all of which are usually radioactive immediately after the process ends.  Another product of uranium fission is Plutonium.  And yes, in case you are wondering, one of the nuclear power plants in the Manhattan Project was producing plutonium for the atomic bomb (it was the Hanford site).

So what’s so dangerous about nuclear waste?  They’re just elements, right?  Maybe so, but these elements by themselves are radioactive, because the contain extra parts in their atoms.  This makes them unstable, and so handling them can make you very sick, cause burns, or kill you.  Let’s take a quick look at the generation of nuclear waste, and how some countries handle it.

These pellets (which contain uranium) are placed in this metal rod (the fuel rod)Upon fission in a nuclear reactor, the above elements might be generated, along with another uranium isotope.  An isotope is simply a fancy word for elements that contain different amounts of a substance in their atoms, namely neutrons (don’t hold any type of a charge, positive OR negative).  All of these products are fairly radioactive.  The United States does not reprocess this waste – it is stored only.  This is due to the fact that the reprocessing of nuclear waste products three things – uranium that can be used for power production (a very good thing), high-level radioactive waste (a very BAD thing), and plutonium.  The concern is that the plutonium, if enough was stocked, could be used to build a weapon.  Other countries (namely the UK, France, Russia, and India) do reprocess this fuel, and use both the uranium and plutonium produced as fuel in their reactors.

The remaining high-level radioactive waste is largely solidified, and stored.  There isn’t currently a very good way to get rid of nuclear waste, which is why it’s such a controversy (OK, only ONE of the reasons).  France keeps high-level waste on-site (at the reactor) for a few years, then sends it off to be solidified, and stored for several decades.  They are currently working on many options, including geologic disposal (sealing the waste deep in the earth).  Some other options include reprocessing the waste into glass, and burying the glass deep underground, long-term storage facilities (which would be above ground), and transmutation (changing it into something else).

So, as you can see, most solutions to the waste problem attempt to deal with it by burying it in geologic formations that have lasted many thousands of years.  This is why Yucca mountain in Nevada was looked at (possibly more on Yucca mountain later).  But currently, most nuclear waste is stored on-site underwater, until a better solution can be found.  So, will we be buried under a mountain of radioactive waste?  Probably not, but a solution needs to be found for the long term, because no matter what your view is on the matter, nuclear power production is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

References

World Nuclear Association (2007) – http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf29.html

French Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (2001) – http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/factsheets/doeymp0411.shtml

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