What are the Different Methods of Nuclear Waste Disposal?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

One of the biggest problems involved in working with nuclear materials is figuring out what to do with these materials when they have outlived their usefulness. Things like spent nuclear fuel from power plants and military operations can be very dangerous, but they have no practical use, forcing governments and environmental agencies to come up with nuclear waste disposal methods which are safe and effective. Failure to handle nuclear waste properly can result in serious problems, such as environmental degradation.

A nuclear power plant.
A nuclear power plant.

Sometimes, nuclear waste disposal can be accomplished by reprocessing the waste so that it can be used for something else. Reprocessing will generate some waste, but it reduces the overall amount of waste, and it can generate substantial savings by freeing up usable material which would otherwise be discarded. Some industries use reprocessing to break nuclear waste down into different components to make it easier to handle during the nuclear waste disposal process.

Nuclear waste is usually stored in drums before transport.
Nuclear waste is usually stored in drums before transport.

Nuclear waste can't be set out on the curb with the garbage because it generates radiation. One of the most common techniques for permanent nuclear waste disposal is burial. When radioactive waste is buried, it is stored in large drums which are designed to outlast the radioactivity. The drums are buried deep underground in a seismically stable area, where the nuclear waste breaks down into less volatile components over the course of centuries. This approach to nuclear waste disposal is somewhat problematic, because the drums could fail, causing pollution, or future civilizations could unearth the site, not realizing that it contains dangerous materials.

A sign indicating radioactivity.
A sign indicating radioactivity.

Some people have advocated shooting nuclear waste out into space. Space already has a great deal of background radiation, so nuclear waste is unlikely to cause a radiation problem in space, but the thought of leaving drums of spent nuclear materials drifting across the universe is unpleasant to some people. Concerns have also been raised about the safety of having numerous discarded objects floating in space, as these objects could become a navigation hazard at some point.

Nuclear waste management is a critical issue around the world, especially with the rise of nuclear power plants as a popular energy generation alternative. Nuclear power does not generate emissions, making it appealing from an environmental standpoint, and many nations rely heavily on nuclear power for energy. As a result, nuclear waste has begun to accumulate in some regions of the world, raising questions about how environmentally friendly nuclear power really is.

Radiation exposure can cause burns, poisoning and other injuries that require emergency care.
Radiation exposure can cause burns, poisoning and other injuries that require emergency care.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What would happen if the recycled nuclear waste was dropped into molten magma? In an active volcano?

Could spent fuel rods be sheathed in a thick lead sleeve and dropped into the Marianas trench which is 33000 feet deep?

Is there a method of absorbing the alpha beta particles and rendering the spent fuel rod neutral?


@Megan: If you're so environmentally friendly why would you not consider this process of producing energy? It produces a much less environmentally threatening output in comparison to burning fossil fuels and provides much more energy than any solar or wind based proposal could produce. Justify your argument.


i don't think they should use nuclear energy in the first place. I am environmental friendly. I love the environment. -Megan


Short answer no. It takes roughly 10,000 US dollars to transport 1Kg of materials into space, that includes the shuttle and its contents, Uranium is quite heavy for its size, then you have to have drilling equipment that is able to work on the moon, that doesn't include maintenance (try repairing an engine in space) therefore it would be a massive financial burden on whoever attempts it.


You can't set things into outer space due to the risk of launch failure. If a rocket was to explode during take off you can imagine the environmental devastation.


Build a simple and relatively inexpensive unmanned rocket, load on the radioactive waste, and shoot it toward the sun, where it will be consumed. At some point on the trip, the sun's gravity will take over getting the rocket and payload the rest of the way there.

Too costly?


would it be financially feasible to transport nuclear waste to the moon and store it there?

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