Nuclear energy has long been regarded as an excellent means to provide the electricity needed to full fill out daily requirements. It is capable of producing electricity without emitting greenhouse gases, making it one of the most useful tools in our fight against global warming.
But following a number of horrific accidents at nuclear power facilities throughout the globe, people are becoming increasingly aware that, if not handled wisely, nuclear power poses a pretty serious threat to our way of life. The storage of nuclear (radioactive) waste has also raised safety and health issues.
The disposal of nuclear waste is frequently mentioned as one of the main drawbacks, by those opposed to the use of nuclear energy. Indeed, the very poisonous by-products of nuclear reactors can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. So, let’s take a deeper look into the dangers surrounding nuclear waste, and its disposal.
What Is Nuclear Waste Disposal?
First and foremost, let’s understand what nuclear waste really is. Just like any other energy-generating industry or technology, nuclear plants also produce waste. Waste from nuclear plants is divided into three main categories, according to the levels of radioactivity (Yim & K., 2000);
This includes materials that have been exposed to radiation or contaminated with radioactive substances. These waste materials often include contaminated protective shoe coverings and clothes, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipment, instruments, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and lab animal corpses and tissues. LLW makes up 90% of nuclear waste and is acceptable for disposal in facilities that are close to the surface and don’t need shielding while being handled or transported.
This includes Resin, chemical sludge, metal nuclear fuel cladding, and contaminated materials following reactor decommissioning. It can be vitrified for disposal or solidified in concrete or bitumen after being combined with silica sand. Disposal of ILW requires shielding but not cooling.
Nuclear reactors and the reprocessing of nuclear fuel produce high-level waste (HLW). The precise definition of HLW varies internationally. Nuclear fuel rods are regarded as HLW once they have completed one fuel cycle and have been removed from the core. Some countries store their HLW in special storage facilities and some go for deep geological disposal.
What Are the Dangers of Nuclear Waste Disposal?
Nuclear waste comes from two main sources, facilities that produce nuclear weapons, and residual fuel from nuclear power reactors. No matter where it came from, this hazardous waste contains extremely dangerous substances like pellets of plutonium and uranium.
These extremely radioactive substances continue to be highly harmful to tens of thousands of years. It is imperative that they be carefully and irrevocably disposed of as a result.
Incidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima have prompted worries about the storage and disposal of nuclear waste and spurred governments to pursue safer alternatives to this kind of energy.
Many countries like Germany, Spain, and Switzerland are planning a complete phase-out of nuclear power by 2030 (von Hirschhausen & Reitz, 2014). On the other hand, many countries like China, the US, and France are planning to build new nuclear power plants as part of their net-zero roadmaps for the future.
How Does Nuclear Waste Impact the Environment?
There are some major concerns about nuclear waste and its disposal methods;
- The waste’s radioactive characteristics release radiation into the environment.
- The soil is rendered worthless by the disposal of nuclear plant waste, including glass, toxic chemicals, and packaging.
- Rainwater seeps through the earth, polluting groundwater reservoirs by transporting pollutants there.
- Typically, nuclear waste is discharged into the sea. They pose a serious hazard to aquatic life in the unfortunate event that they leak.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that all of these worries have been considered, as have their solutions, and the trash is disposed of in a way that prevents any of these regrettable effects.
What Are the Effects of Nuclear Waste on Human Health?
There is no doubt that exposure to nuclear radiation can cause immense damage to human health. Large doses of radiation can result in vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding, intestinal lining destruction, central nervous system damage, and even death. Additionally, it damages DNA and increases the risk of cancer, especially in fetuses and early children.
However, either a high dosage of radiation or a low dose of radiation over an extended period of time must be exposed for these health issues to manifest. And around 90% of the waste being disposed into the environment is of low level which has already been previously treated. So, the chances of occurrence of any severe health concerns from nuclear waste are very low.
Numerous epidemiological studies examined the prevalence of a wide range of potential ailments among residents and workers at nuclear waste storage and dumping facilities.
The primary finding of the overall examination of the literature is that there is typically insufficient and inconclusive evidence of adverse health effects for the general population living near landfill sites, incinerators, composting operations, and nuclear plants (Giusti, 2009).
How Can We Improve the Current Standard for Nuclear Waste Management?
The disposal and storage of highly radioactive residual fuel is an indisputable problem related to nuclear. But there is no denying that this issue is taken very seriously by the government and agencies involved and substantial advancements have been made recently in the safe and efficient treatment of dangerous materials.
Countries like US and Finland have come up with a solution that might just put the concerns regarding nuclear waste at ease.
Deep geological repositories are considered the best approach to managing nuclear waste by many nations of the world including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Japan, the Netherlands, the Republic of Korea, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK.
The US and Finland have already begun building deep geological repositories in which multiple barriers are used, including the host rock, the waste form, the container, and the sealing materials.
The containment system’s overall safety is not compromised if one component fails because of the way the system is built (HEUI, CHOI, LEE, & CHOI, 2013).
Since the terrible events of Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear waste has been a major issue for the general public and environmentalists, and many are opposed to the usage of nuclear energy because of its destructive nature.
Even so, a lot of people are in favor of nuclear power because it leaves no carbon imprint and because they think nuclear waste can be handled in a way that doesn’t endanger the environment or the general public’s health. And numerous others have offered solutions. Now the question is, which side are you on?
- Giusti, L. (2009). A review of waste management practices and their impact on human health. Waste management, pp. 2227-2239.
- HEUI, J., CHOI, J., LEE, J., & CHOI. (2013, Feb). DEVELOPMENT OF GEOLOGICAL DISPOSAL SYSTEMS FOR SPENT FUELS AND HIGH-LEVEL RADIOACTIVE WASTES IN KOREA. Nuclear Engineering and Technology, pp. 29-40. Retrieved from kpubs.
- von Hirschhausen, C., & Reitz, F. (2014). Nuclear power: phase-out model yet to address final disposal issue. DIW Economic Bulletin, 4(8), 27-35.
- Yim, M. S., & K., L. M. (2000). Materials issues in nuclear-waste management. Jom, 52(9), 26-29.