Radioactive waste

As the uranium fuel within a nuclear reactor undergoes fission, it generates a cocktail of radioactive atoms within the fuel pellets. Eventually the fissile uranium becomes of too low a concentration to sustain a nuclear reaction. At this point the fuel rod will be removed from the reactor. It must now be disposed of in a safe manner. Yet after more than 50 years, no safe method of disposal has been developed.

Radioactive waste disposal has become one of the key environmental battlegrounds over which the future of nuclear power has been fought. Environmentalists argue that no system of waste disposal can be absolutely safe, either now and in the future. And since some radionucleides will remain a danger for thousands of years, the future is an important consideration.

Governments and the nuclear industry have tried to find acceptable solutions. But in countries where popular opinion is taken into consideration, no mutually acceptable solution has been found. As a result, most spent fuel has been stored in the nuclear power plants where it was produced. This is now causing its own problems as storage ponds designed to store a few years' waste become filled, or overflowing.

One avenue that has been explored is the reprocessing of spent fuel to remove the active ingredients. Some of the recovered material can be recycled as fuel. The remainder must be stored safely until it has become inactive. But reprocessing has proved expensive and can exacerbate the problem of disposal rather than assisting it. As a result it appears publicly unacceptable.

The primary alternative is to bury waste deep underground in a manner that will prevent it ever being released. This requires both a means to encapsulate the waste and a place to store the waste once encapsulated. Encapsulation techniques include sealing the waste in a glass-like matrix.

Finding a site for such encapsulated waste has proved problematical. An underground site must be in stable rock formation is a region not subject to seismic disturbance. Sites in the USA and Europe have been studied but none has yet been accepted. Even if site approval is achieved, there appears little prospect of any nuclear waste repository being built until well into the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Other solutions have been proposed for nuclear waste disposal. One involves loading the fuel into a rocket and shooting it into the sun. Another utilises particle accelerators to destroy the radioactive material generated during fission.

Environmentalists argue that the problem of nuclear waste is insoluble and represents an ever-growing burden on future generations. The industry disputes this but in the absence of a persuasive solution its arguments lack weight. Unless a solution is found, the industry will continue to suffer.

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