Nuclear Waste

Reprocessing/Recycling and Disposal

What exactly is disposal of nuclear waste and what are the possibilities in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel? What are the differences between low, high and intermediate-level waste?

Since the 1940’s when the potential of nuclear energy was first discovered, people have been working on harnessing its awesome power for peaceful domestic use. Today, nuclear power plants deliver about 14 % of the world’s total electricity, but this comes with a price: Nuclear waste is the incredible dangerous. We know that everything living needs to be kept away from nuclear waste for as long as 100 000 years.

This article is not about how nuclear power plants work, but rather what we can do with the waste of these processes. If you don’t have knowledge on this area you could read Nuclear first and come back to this article and learn how we can deal with the waste.
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What is Nuclear Waste?

Most nuclear power plants today use uranium as fuel. When uranium is being split there are, apart from heat energy used for power production, numerous of other byproducts, some of which are dangerous.

The half-life of nuclear waste is the amount of time it takes before half of the radioactivity of a compound has died. In other words, half of the radioactive molecules have been broken down into non-radioactive ones, and in the processes emitted radioactivity.

The half-life is what determines how long the waste is going to stay radioactive and what level of radioactivity it is going to emit.  The short-lived waste products are more aggressive and have higher levels of radioactivity. Some of these by-products are long-lived, and can remain radioactive for 10.000 years.


Low-level (LLW) and Intermediate-level Waste (ILW)

The majority of nuclear waste is either low- or intermediate-level (where level is a measure of the amount of the radioactivity in the waste). This type of waste often comes from hospital laboratories, industrial processes or other parts of the nuclear power plants other than the reactor itself. This type of waste is relatively easy to deal with.

Low-level radioactive waste disposal is usually straightforward. Some of the high-activity low-level waste does require shielding, but most are suitable for disposal in shallow land.

Intermediate-level waste does also in some cases require shielding, and long-lived ILW should be stored in geological repositories. Short-lived waste can usually be disposed in shallow repositories.


High-level Waste (HLW)

Relatively small amounts of HLW are produced compared to LLW and ILW. On the other hand, this waste must be handled and stored much more carefully. Almost all the HLW comes from nuclear power plants.


Where is Nuclear Waste Stored?

Nuclear waste management possesses a lot of challenges. The most used method when it comes to disposal of nuclear waste is simply to bury it deep underground. In reality this is not as simple as it sounds. High-level radioactive waste disposal require deeper depths as this waste can be incredible dangerous.

There are several well-known radioactive waste disposal sites around the world. The swedes have a facility in Oskarshamn, storing long-lived nuclear waste for as long as 100 000 years!

In comparison, the modern human being (homo sapiens sapiens) have been around on this earth for about 200 000 years. Is making decisions now for something people 100 000 years into the future has to deal with stupid?

The United States had an ongoing project for several years called the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, in Nevada, but the Obama administration finally terminated it in 2011.


The proposed design of Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository

There are several other radioactive waste disposal methods such as under water storage and vitrification of nuclear waste. If you want this covered or anything else about nuclear waste covered, request it on the Contact Us page above or by leaving a comment.


Recycling/Reprocessing Nuclear Waste

Would it be possible to recycle the nuclear waste we already have? There is over 50.000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel only in the U.S. and it’s piling up. All the way back in the 1950’s people starting looking at the various options for dealing with this waste. Shooting it into space, deep-sea burial, burial in glaciers and all kinds of geological settings.

The world’s best scientists are working to solve this waste problem by recycling/reprocessing nuclear waste. If successful, it could reduce the radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants by 90%.

When 5% of the uranium in the nuclear rods has been reacted, the entire fuel rod has been contaminated with plutonium and other fission products. The “spent” nuclear fuel rods are no longer efficient at making electricity, so it is treated as waste.

Recycling nuclear waste is basically extracting the usable elements for energy production. The goal of these technologies is to efficiently close the nuclear fuel cycle. There are several problems that come with reprocessing/recycling nuclear waste, most importantly the costs and the debate if these methods actually are beneficial for the environment or not. U.S. does not currently allow reprocessing of nuclear waste.

Nuclear power may produce no green house gases, but the nuclear waste it leaves behind, remaining radioactive for as long as 100.000 years, does possess a terrible problem for both people and the environment.

There are several other downsides as well as benefits of nuclear energy that you could read up on in Nuclear Energy Pros and Cons.

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