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Finding a Solution to Nuclear Waste: A Policy Analysis

Options for Dealing with Nuclear Waste

It is not easy to find safe ways to dispose of the waste produced by a nuclear power plant. In the U.K., the plan is to find a geologically stable location in which to bury the nuclear waste safely. This has not met with universal approval, with Scotland opting out of both further development of nuclear power and from the U.K.’s proposed waste management scheme (Venables, 2008).  There are two issues, common to nearly all such programs: First, few  communities want the nuclear disposal site near their boundaries, and second, the risk of transporting such highly dangerous products from the power plants to the disposal sites is far too high; again, no community wants such cargo passing through their boundaries (Venables, 2008).

McCombie (2009) described two proposals presented to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  One solution would be for developed countries to create a repository and accept the waste of smaller, less developed countries. McCombie noted that several variations on this approach could be considered.  A second approach would be for groups of countries to combine efforts to create an appropriate storage facility that all partners would use.  Again, local communities where the storage facility would be sited (and those through which the waste must travel to get to that storage facility) must be amenable to having the facility situated there.  This has been an ongoing problem for proposed repositories throughout the world (McCombie, 2009).

It is not just the commercial power industry that has a problem with nuclear waste disposal.  The GAO (2011) reported that the Department of Energy (DOE) maintains nuclear waste storage sites in the states of Colorado, Idaho, New York, South Carolina, and Washington.  Those sites store radioactive waste from a variety of sources, including spent fuel from warships and other government-generated waste. That waste was intended to go to a permanent storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.  However, because the Obama administration shut down that project, alternative solutions must still be found to deal with the approximate 13,000 tons of nuclear waste originally planned for that center (GAO, 2011).  In a separate report from 2009, the GAO reported that the total waste storage is expected to be 153,000 tonnes by 2055 (GAO, 2009).  The Yucca Mountain repository had cost more than $7 billion and  was more than 10 years behind schedule at the time of cancellation; it was not expected to open until at least 2020, even if it had continued under development, a date that had been slipping regularly.

Castaldo (2011) reported that some towns in the northern parts of Canada are angling to participate in the nuclear industry by becoming repositories for nuclear waste.  Canada has approximately 5, 500,000 bundles of spent nuclear fuel and no place to put them.  The small towns in northern Canada would like to have the government construct underground storage areas (“deep geological repositories”) protected by multiple barriers.  The idea would be that in such secure facilities, the waste could be kept safe from damaging the environment for nearly 1 million years. This clearly would not be a short-term project, and will cost the Canadian government $24 billion (Canadian) dollars over the course of the next quarter century to construct it if it is approved.  Many in the community expressed enthusiasm because of the expected jobs such a project would bring to the area.   Castaldo noted that the residents of the communities involved admit they understand very little about the risks of nuclear radiation, but did have concerns over turning their remote location into a nuclear dump site; Castaldo pointed out that those concerns were exacerbated by the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. 

The Canadian government identified four options for disposal of their nuclear waste according to Castaldo: storing it underground, creating a centralized above-ground waste storage, keeping it in the spent fuel pools of existing reactor buildings, and “adaptive phased management” in which the waste would be buried but retrievable for a period of time, in case a better solution came to light, and only permanently buried after some future generation decided to do so. Castaldo also noted  that Canadian citizens had deep concerns over the ability to safely transport so much highly dangerous radioactive material safely to the remote disposal location. Once again the issues of “not here” and “don’t bring it by here” have been the greatest public opinion blocks.

One solution that may prove to be helpful to European countries was described by Elam and Sundqvist (2009).  Sweden has been working on the waste disposal problem for the nuclear power industry since the mid 1970s.  The project, Karbranslesakerhet/Nuclear Fuel Safety (KBS) is a phased program that provides for direct disposal of nuclear waste. Despite the long-range planning for over thirty years, the stumbling block has been, and remains, the identification of a specific location for the disposal site is undecided.  The basic method of the disposal process is to first store the waste for 30 years.  After that holding period, the waste would be encased in iron, which would then be placed in a casing of a specific copper alloy.  This is then wrapped in a layer of clay, which is buried in a hole that is about 25 feet deep and 6 feet across. That hole is in crystalline rock, such as granite.  The idea behind this procedure is that after 100,000 years, the level of radioactivity would be  about the same as would be found a naturally occurring deposit of uranium. Sweden’s policy from the beginning of their development of nuclear power was to insist that the utility companies consider the long-term impact of nuclear generators on the environment.  Elam and Sundqvist (2009) detailed the political and social ramifications of the search for nuclear waste disposal solutions; the final location in Sweden was selected last year.

A final option is to convert the nuclear waste via a reprocessing plant into more nuclear fuel. While such a facility has its own risks, France has opted for this solution to its nuclear waste problem (Plumer, 2010). By late 2010, the U.S. was investigating the feasibility of establishing a similar type of program because it significantly reduces the total volume of radioactive waste that must be stored.  The negative aspects of reprocessing include that it generates more of certain nuclear products—specifically plutonium—that are extremely dangerous and are the basis of nuclear weapons.  It also converts solid waste into a liquid—and liquids are much more difficult to contain and to keep from disseminating into the groundwater. (Nuclear Waste News, 2010).

Such a reprocessing facility would still require the transportation of nuclear waste from other power plants to the reprocessing facility.  In October of 2010, a huge controversy was generated when a power company proposed shipping about 1600 tons of low level radioactive waste through the Great Lakes system and waterways (Nuclear Waste News, 2010a). The degree of controversy over such a low-risk shipment indicates the level of concern that arises with the prospect of shipping high-level radioactive waste.