Nuclear Waste Management: Towards a gloomy future?

A shipment of radioactive waste makes its way to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico. Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Flickr CC

A shipment of radioactive waste makes its way to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico. Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Flickr CC

The question about how to manage nuclear waste is as old as the technology itself, however no definite solution has yet been found with regards to long-term storage. Many proposals to create infrastructure that lasts for millennia, necessary for the high-level radioactive waste to become harmless, have been discussed with an ambition which is unrivalled in human history. The scientific and engineering complexities are further complicated by the political processes which accompany the issue. This article will briefly address experiences from countries that run nuclear power plants.

While countries have so far failed to create long-term repositories for nuclear waste, the waste produced by nuclear power is constantly growing. Around 270,000 tons of high-level waste is in temporary storage around the world, with about 10,000 tons being added each year. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a multilateral organization, 30 countries were operating a total of 434 nuclear power plants around the globe in 2013.

In dealing with nuclear waste, policymakers have few choices. They can either wait for the improvement of technology to treat spent nuclear fuel, and in the meantime create short-term over ground storage facilities. Or, another mid-term strategy is to engage in reprocessing nuclear fuel, which can reduce the amount of waste and enables the fuel to be reused again. The downside of reprocessing is that it is relatively costly and heavily criticized by environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, for being dangerous since Plutonium, a byproduct from reprocessing, can be used to create nuclear weapons. The challenge of storing radioactive waste, however, is not solved by this procedure, therefore an adequate underground storage facility is seen to be necessary to accommodate nuclear waste in the long-term. Many national programs have been initiated with the goal of finding an appropriate site that would have the suitable geological properties needed to safely store nuclear waste. However, not a single project has been constructed yet and the International Energy Agency highlights the pressing need to find a long-term storage solution. Two examples – from the USA and Germany – will highlight the difficulties of finding a storage facility that is shown to be safe, well managed by the authority that supervises it, and politically accepted.

Regarding the technical issues, there are often unforeseen circumstances that force administrations to reconsider their decisions. In the only underground storage facility in the USA, organic cat litter caused a waste container to break and release low-level radioactive material, contaminating more than 20 employees of the company operating the site. For long-term disposal, the Yucca Mountain in Nevada was chosen as the main candidate for the construction of a long-term waste disposal site. However, a serious bone of contention was whether water infiltrates Yucca Mountain, with data conducted by government sponsored research being contested. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industrial interest organization, accused the opponents of the Yucca project of spreading misinformation and stated that there was systematic misinterpretation of studies conducted. While the mainly technical arguments made by the interest association cannot be evaluated at this point, the importance of having long-term political approval for such a large scale project is highlighted by the Yucca project, since Obama did withdraw funding for the site in 2009 to fulfill his election campaign promises.

Protest against nuclear waste in Leese, Germany. Source: Flickr CC

Protest against nuclear waste in Leese, Germany. Source: Flickr CC

In Germany, a research facility was opened 50 years ago in an old salt mine, Asse II, which was later on also used to store approximately 47.000 cubic meters of radioactive material from nuclear power plants. The size of the storage facility is especially worrying because some waste containers have started to corrode and are leaking radioactive material. As the Economist reports, one risk factor could be that nuclear waste from power plants creates lots of heat which may destabilize geological formations. Supervision of Asse II was handed over from the Helmholtz Gesellschaft to the Federal Agency of Radiation Protection in 2009. In an interview with National Geographic, Werner Nordig, the agencies spokesperson, describes the uniqueness of its task: “What we have to do now is find out if it´s possible to remove the waste. This work has never been done in the world up until now.” The federal government has nonetheless made the decision to phase out nuclear energy, while there is still an open question over who bears the succession costs with regards to both the deconstruction of the nuclear plants and the long term storage of nuclear waste.

To sum up, national strategies towards nuclear energy in general, but also with regards to waste management in particular, differ considerably. It is an issue of both high technical complexity and considerable political salience and decisions made by public authorities are likely to affect governments thousands of electoral cycles after the term in which they operate.

FABIAN TSCHECH