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Bury it? Shoot it into space? Why scientists still can't find a place for nuclear waste

Opinion by Paul Hockenos

Updated: Mon, 28 Feb 2022 09:58:52 GMT

Source: CNN

Editor's Note: Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer focusing on renewable energy in Europe. He is the author of four books on European issues, most recently "Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin." The opinions in this article are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

A major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, to be released Monday, is expected to warn that humans are wrecking the planet so profoundly that we may run out of ways to survive the crisis. The report speaks of a "rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all."

This might make it tempting to rush to nuclear energy as a quick, low-carbon fix.

But its faults are numerous, not least that there is still no answer to the 80-year-old question: Where to store the burgeoning tons of highly radioactive spent fuel?

Propositions abound: from catapulting it into space, ditching it between tectonic plates, or burying it deep underground on remote islands.

But try as they have, scientists can't find a safe, long-term, cost-effective way to dispose of nuclear waste.

Even as new countries like Poland, Egypt, Bangladesh, and Indonesia line up to start nuclear programs -- on the face of it, a low-carbon energy source that could cut emissions -- every nation in the world with nuclear power struggles with the same dilemma.

Thus far, the determined hunt for a secure nuclear graveyard has been unsuccessful -- and there's no fix in sight. While the search goes on, ever more of the highly toxic refuse -- a lethal by-product of the plutonium and uranium used in nuclear energy and weaponry production -- piles up on top of the 370,000 tons of fission residue that languishes in stockpiles worldwide. Experts say that could jump by 1.1 million tons in a century.

Germany is shutting down its last nuclear power plant at the end of this year. France, on the other hand, just announced a massive build-out of its already prodigious nuclear fleet. The US is betting on nuclear to help hit climate goals.

Like most nations with nuclear power, they store the toxic spent fuel in steel cannisters at temporary locations, usually at nuclear plant facilities and military stations -- often incurring the wrath of local residents who want nothing to do with the hazardous material that remains radioactive for a million years.

Indeed, proponents and adversaries of nuclear power agree these interim solutions are untenable: we can't just dump this toxic mess on subsequent generations, and then they on others. Moreover, spent fuel, though no longer usable for energy production, remains radioactive and thus poses health, security, and proliferation risks.

At the moment, the Finns are putting deep geological disposal on the table as a solution -- currently the least objectionable of the options under discussion. But the Nordics' claim to have finally cracked this headache from hell is riddled with uncertainties.

This summer, on a tiny, sparsely populated island in the Baltic Sea, the first of hundreds of tightly sealed volcanic-clay-and-copper-clad drums of spent nuclear fuel will be lowered into a 500-meter deep granite vault and, eventually, cemented shut -- not for a million but, presumably, for about 100,000 years.

Yet this geological tomb is only another, ultimately temporary, fix. As nuclear waste expert Andrew Blowers, author of "The Legacy of Nuclear Power" and a former member of the UK's Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, says, "Currently no options have been able to demonstrate that waste will remain isolated from the environment over the tens to hundreds of thousands of years."

Copper and cement will eventually corrode and decay, while nuclear waste remains radioactive and highly toxic for millennia. Some experts though say the risk of leaks, and water contamination, is higher than Finnish authorities acknowledge.

Moreover, earthquakes or other dramatic shifts in geological conditions could set the poisonous elements free. And then there's the cost: Finland will spend €3.5 billion ($3.9 billion) on the facility, which will in the course of the next 100 years house 6,500 tons -- of their own -- spent fuel.

Other countries, such as the US, Britain, and Sweden say they will also, one day, bury their nuclear refuse in similar vaults. But even where the unique geological conditions exist, the same obstacle always arises: opposition from locals. Nobody but nobody wants radioactive waste anywhere near their families.

This is why another option, tectonic burial, looks appealing -- until one looks more closely. The idea is to send nuclear waste plummeting into the earth's core, basically hitching a ride on a geological plate on the ocean floor that is in the process of diving beneath an adjacent plate. The further the downward plate submerges beneath the earth's skin, the further away the nuclear waste is carried from our natural world.

But geologists pour scorn on the notion: the movement of tectonic plates is much too slow, the volume of nuclear refuse too great, and then there's the threat of subterranean volcanos or quakes that could send the mess spewing back into the ocean.

Hurtling nuclear waste in the other direction, namely into space, is also a nonstarter. There, the risk of rocket failure, the issue of space debris, and the wildly prohibitive cost stop this ploy dead in its tracks.

The exorbitant cost of the ongoing search -- and then of the "solution" itself -- illustrate why we don't want ever more of this menacing debris. Thus far, the US has spent $13 billion of taxpayer money in its unsuccessful effort to rid the country of its 90,000 tons of radioactive waste.

In Finland, at least, the nuclear industry picks up the bill. At the Finns' rate, disposing of all of the world's current nuclear waste could total €135 billion ($153 billion) and another €6 billion ($6.8 billion) a year for the estimated 10,500 more metric tons produced annually.

Yet, since no long-term secure repository is in sight, says Blowers, "on-site storage of spent fuel is likely to remain for several generations, at least until mid to end of next century. As the volume grows, they will have to cope with ever more complex, difficult management issues."

And we can't just cut and run.

Until scientists find a secure, long-term, cost-effective way to dispose of the already generated nuclear waste on planet Earth, we must stop generating yet more of it. Genuinely renewable energy is cheaper, safer, faster, and cleaner. Nuclear power is the opposite of a quick fix.


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