Nuclear Waste: An Ongoing Issue
In the United States, nuclear energy has been viewed as a cleaner and potentially limitless source of energy, especially compared to other fossil fuel sources such as coal and oil. There are over 100 reactors operating in the United States, which provide roughly 20% of the nation’s electricity.1 Of those reactors, there is no permanent waste disposal site currently existing in the U.S, after plans to build a facility in Yucca Mountain in Nevada were scrapped due to concerns that were raised about the effectiveness of the site, and the possibility for seismic activity that could disturb any stored waste.2 Currently, nuclear waste in the United States is typically stored on-site at nuclear reactors in dry cask storage, which allows spent fuel to be surrounded by inert gas inside a container which is called a cask, which in turn is a steel cylinder surrounded by concrete layers in order to shield workers from radiation.3 This is a temporary fix while a permanent solution has so far been unsuccessfully found. In addition, even nuclear waste can pose a great danger to the environment and workers who are near it, so it remains imperative the irradiated waste is handled with great caution. Before the United States continues with its nuclear energy program, it needs to greatly mitigate the environmental risks associated with nuclear waste, and find a permanent solution for nuclear waste disposal .
One of the vexing issues surrounding nuclear waste is the permanence that it poses to the environment, because it can take an upwards of thousands of years in order for radioactive isotopes to decay to negligible amounts. The standard method of storage, dry casks, are prone to cracking in 30 years or less, and it is only hoped that dry casks remain an adequate solution to store nuclear waste beyond the span of 100 years.4 Dry casks store high-level waste, which is made up of spent nuclear reactor fuel from commercial power plants and any other military nuclear facility, and includes reprocessed materials which can emit significant of radiation for hundreds of thousands of years. Commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. alone produce 2,000 tons of high-level waste each year.5 When spent fuel is removed from a reactor core, it still emits millions of rems (Roentgen equivalent in man) of radiation, which in low doses, for example 100 rems of radiation, can include symptoms such as vomiting, headaches, and loss of white blood cells. When exposed to a higher dose, it can damage the DNA of living organisms and cause birth defects, tumors, and cancer, easily leading to death.6 When there is no permanent site for nuclear waste to be stored, plants will also often keep spent fuel rods in pools of water lined with lead and concrete. By keeping the rods cool, it can prevent the rods from fission and spreading harmful gamma radiation. The space at each nuclear power plant to store spent fuel rods is limited, and this problem becomes compounded with the passing of time as more and more fuel rods are spent in the process of generating energy. To store high-level waste in the long-term, a waterproof and geologically stable repository and leak-proof waste container (like a dry cask) is needed. The storage container for the waste needs to be made to the specifications of the volume of the waste, the level of radioactivity it still contains, the half-lives of isotopes, and the amount of heat it is still generating. One method for storing high-level wastes involves, essentially, melting the waste with glass and then pouring the molten mixture into more impermeable containers. The containers are then encased in soil, and surrounded by material such as concrete and lead in order to block any radiation. By now, you must see the problem with this. There is not a permanent solution for the disposal of these waste products. All that is able to be done is to package the nuclear waste material up as tight as possible,...
Cited: Chen, Wenzhen, Jianli Hao, and Zhiyun Chen. “A Study of Self-Burial of a Radioactive Waste Container by Deep Rock Melting.” Science and Technology of Nuclear Installations 2013 (2013): www.hindawi.com.
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Macfarlane, Allison. “Underlying Yucca Mountain: The Interplay of Geology and Policy in Nuclear Waste Disposal.” Social Studies of Science 33.5 (2003): 783–807. Print.
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