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What are Some Nuclear Waste Storage Methods?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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Nuclear waste storage is an issue of interest in many regions of the world, thanks to the widespread use of nuclear technology in energy generation, medicine, and warfare. It has also been a topic of controversy, as governments struggle with nuclear waste and what to do with it. There are a number of options for storing nuclear waste which are designed to address the safety issues involved with nuclear material.

The issue with nuclear waste is that it has been deemed useless, but it is still dangerous. Nuclear waste can continue to emit radiation for centuries, and it could potentially become unstable if handled and stored improperly, setting off a chain reaction which could create a nuclear accident. If it fell into the wrong hands, it could be used to make a dirty bomb which would spread radiation over an inhabited area. Nuclear waste storage focuses on finding safe and secure ways to store spent nuclear fuel and other forms of nuclear waste until they stabilize enough that they do not pose a threat to humans, wildlife, and the environment.

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Temporary nuclear waste storage is typically the first step. In many cases, nuclear waste is extremely hot when it is generated, and it needs some time to cool down. At locations like nuclear power plants, spent nuclear material is submerged in pools filled with boric acid to allow it to cool and stabilize. These pools are usually made from steel-lined concrete to prevent leakage, and they are definitely a temporary measure.

Once nuclear waste is cooled, it can be moved into dry cask storage. Dry cask nuclear waste storage involves extremely durable barrels which are designed to prevent leaks of radiation. The casks can be filled with waste and stored above ground safely, although they are also designed ultimately for temporary storage. Over the thousands of years which may be required for the waste to stabilize, the casks could fail or be breached.

For long term nuclear waste storage, it is necessary to find a safe place to keep the material while it breaks down. Burial is one method which has been widely promoted, as the nuclear waste can safely break down underground or under the ocean floor in remote areas. The issue with burial is that the nuclear waste could leak or be breached by earthquakes or human activity. There are also concerns about the fact that in several thousand years, it is unlikely that knowledge of the site as a dangerous location will survive, which means that future civilizations could unwittingly release toxic materials into the environment when they breach storage facilities.

Some nuclear waste management specialists have suggested that waste could be shot into space, but this could also cause problems in the future. While space is currently a hostile environment for humans, this doesn't necessarily make it a great place to use as a dump, not least because if other life forms do exist, they will probably not appreciate floating barrels of nuclear waste drifting through the universe.

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ValleyFiah
Post 3

@submariner- I am not necessarily for nuclear power generation because it produces so much hazardous nuclear waste with few disposal methods. However, I do wonder if there is a way to keep the waste within our borders, but bury it underwater for less cost.

I recently read an article in a magazine about the number of old uncapped oil wells that sit below the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. There is something like 3,000 old wells that are potential hazards and the well owners either do not care, or have gone out of business, essentially making these wells superfund sites.

My point is this; why not let the nuclear utilities buy the sites, inject their nuclear waste into these dead wells, and cap them off. They are natural repositories that are off shore, but they are still within U.S. Borders. Does anyone have any thoughts on this idea?

submariner
Post 2

@glasshouse- Besides the obvious technical and geological reasons, burying nuclear reactor waste at sea would be a very bad idea. The big issues arise from the geologic activity that happens in these trenches that could cause storage casks to break open, causing a radioactive disaster. This leads to the next point. We do not have the institutional or technological capacity to deal with a disaster 35,000 feet under the sea.

Although Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage will probably never be built, storing the waste within a nation’s borders is a better idea. The nation (government, utilities, and regulatory agencies) must then be accountable for their waste in case of a disaster. The dump zones in the oceans would be in

international waters, and the oceans are common heritage goods. It would be highly unethical to allow utilities and private corporations to privatize the oceans as nuclear waste dumps when over one sixth of the world's population depends on its bounty for survival.
Glasshouse
Post 1

How come we don't just encase the nuclear waste into pyrex and place it in casks that we dispose of in an ocean trench or some very deep place? I read somewhere that the oceans can dissipate radioactive waste anyway, and the deepest trenches have little use to people. Something needs to be done that is cost effective and practical because even if we buried it in Yucca Mountain (if it could ever be built), the repository would only hold a fraction of the waste in the United States.

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