Contrary to how it’s portrayed by the Simpsons, nuclear waste is not a highly toxic, neon-green sludge.
It doesn’t ooze out of leaky barrels stashed on playground slides and in public parks . . .
. . . and it’s not haphazardly stored or tossed into rivers because there’s no other place to put it.
The truth is, there’s not even that much of it.
The amount of nuclear waste generated in the entire U.S. each year is less than half the volume of an Olympic swimming pool.
And that fuel provides power to more than seventy million homes while avoiding 400 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Even long-term, there’s just not much radioactive waste to worry about—especially compared with other forms of electricity generation.
- All civilian nuclear waste produced in the U.S. since 1950 would fit on a football field at a depth of thirty feet.
The coal used by the U.S. would fill that same space 2.5 times, every day.
Worldwide, about 8,000 tons of nuclear waste is generated annually. That’s only 1/10 the weight of the Washington Monument.
As little as there is however, it still needs a safe, long-term solution.
You see, high-level nuclear waste—the really dangerous stuff—is extremely hot and radioactive. And the only way it becomes harmless to humans is time. Lots of time.
Which means countries need to take their time to get waste storage right—the first time.
“You’re designing something that’s going to be protected for millions of years. It’s okay if we take decades to figure it out.” – Nuclear Energy Institute Senior Director Rodney McCullum
That’s why countries like China, Finland, Sweden, and the U.S. have spent the last forty years studying disposal methods. And they’ve figured it out.
Waste Not, Want Not
The first problem with nuclear waste is cooling it down and keeping it away from people.
Spent nuclear fuel comes conveniently in the form of thin, solid rods that are relatively easy to store.
After being removed from a reactor, these rods are placed in giant, steel-lined concrete pools that provide cooling and shielding. A few years later, much of the heat and radioactivity has dissipated.
The used fuel can then be moved to dry storage in welded, steel-reinforced concrete above-ground canisters.
After about fifty years there—by which time the radioactivity is greatly decreased—the canisters can be easily transferred to a permanent storage site.
Dry storage in the U.S. did not begin until 1986.
That means it has another fifteen years or so until a permanent solution needs to be ready.
- Fortunately, the solution has already been found: in the earth itself.
In the far, far north of Canada lies the Athabasca Basin. It’s one of the biggest and highest-grade uranium deposits known to man.
Most of it is UO2—uranium dioxide—which is what’s used as nuclear reactor fuel. The ultra-high-grade ore is protected from water by a “dome” of clay.
Even though the deposit has been in permeable sandstone for more than 100,000 years . . . it’s gone nowhere.
Multiple ice ages, continental drift, and even mountain formation have come and gone.
Its chemical or radioactive signature is undetectable from the surface.
In other words, it’s the perfect solution for long-term waste disposal: a deep geological repository (DGR). Already, more than a dozen countries have chosen it as their nuclear waste management solution.
The First Reverse Mine
Onkalo—meaning “pit” in Finnish—is scheduled to begin operations in Finland in 2024.
It will be the first permanent disposal site for high-level civilian nuclear waste in the world.
Tunnels will be dug one-third of a mile into the earth’s surface, all the way down to the bedrock.
- The used fuel will be placed in boron steel canisters.
- Those canisters will be enclosed in copper capsules.
- The copper capsules will be buried in the tunnel floor.
- The holes dug will be plugged with a water-absorbing clay.
- Then the tunnels will be filled with bentonite and sealed with concrete.
Come global warming or another ice age, it will be the fuel’s final resting place.
Now you might be thinking . . .
Easy for Finland—they must have only a small amount of waste!
- Finland is slated to get 60% of their power from nuclear—second only to France.
Even so, the single new DGR is not expected to be filled until 2120, a century after operations begin.
Sweden is next in line, and they’re following the exact pattern set by Finland.
8,000 tonnes of nuclear waste—everything Sweden has generated since the 1970—will be buried one-third of a mile into the earth.
The final project is expected to cost only $2 billion.
“This is the result of 40 years of research and it will be safe for 100,000 years.” – Sweden Environment Minister Annika Strandhall
Just like how a large company would do it, Sweden let communities compete for the chance at the jobs and money that follow large construction projects.
France has already selected a suitable site for a DGR, and the UK and Canada are in the process of doing so.
The United States, however, is a different story.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Most of the spent fuel in the United States is stored in dry casks or pools at more than seventy nuclear reactors across the country.
The Department of Energy is considering consolidating all of it into a federal short-term storage facility.
They’d use consent-based siting, just like Sweden.
In late 2021, the Office of Nuclear Energy took a first step toward establishing such a repository.
The NRC found that either nuclear reactors or a federal facility will provide safe storage for waste for at least the next century.
The Department of Energy found that a permanent nuclear waste disposal facility would cost a staggering $31 billion.
Fortunately, the government has been collecting money from consumers to be spent on just that—since the ‘80s. And so far, they’ve got $44 billion.
Now it’s just a matter of identifying a place. But they might not have to, because there might not be any waste left to store.
Here’s why . . .
Current nuclear facilities use only about 1 percent of the energy stored in the uranium.
- Reprocessing the fuel enables it to be used again. And again.
That means much of the used fuel currently in storage is not actually considered waste.
Canadian reactors, for example, can actually burn spent fuel from U.S. reactors. And once used, fuel from the Canadian reactors is only dangerous for about a thousand years—not 100,000.
France has taken it a step further, and nearly closed the fuel cycle. Their reprocessing of spent fuel results in only 4 percent waste.
The other 96% is reused in the reactor.
Anti-nuclear activists love to say that nuclear has no long-term solution to its waste.
In fact, nuclear may be the only energy technology on the planet with a complete long-term solution for every. last. molecule.