Nuclear Waste Essay

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The processing of nuclear material such as plutonium and enriched uranium for energy production results in spent material. A nuclear power station with a 1,000 megawatt capacity will typically produce in excess of 20 tons of spent fuel annually. This material must be disposed of as safely as possible because it is highly radioactive and dangerous to human health, causing cancer and other illnesses. However, the material may sometimes be reprocessed. The fission materials produced by the original processing may be removed and the spent material can either be recycled or collected into weapons-grade plutonium or uranium.

Approximately 270,000 tons of nuclear waste has already been produced globally, and current projections are for an additional 12,000 tons to be produced annually for the next 25 years. In addition to nuclear power plants, nuclear waste is produced by nuclear-powered surface ships and submarines, and by some private research institutions. In all of these situations, regulations exist to ensure safe handling. In the case of the accidental meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, it is not clear whether regulations were properly policed.

Spent material is processed in a separate facility from where it was used. It is placed in steel canisters with additional overcoats; the canister is then welded shut. This method is considered the safest means of dealing with the spent fuel. However, depending on the type of spent fuel involved, and the methods by which it has been treated, alternative means of disposal are also possible. For example, French nuclear power station technicians have devised a special method for nuclear waste disposal. Solid residue is first melted and then formed into borosilicate blocks that solidify within steel canisters approximately one meter tall and up to almost a half meter in diameter. The steel canisters are then deposited into a safe repository.

Despite accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in the United States, the demands for nuclear energy are great and will only intensify in the future as a result of problems with fossil fuels such as emission of greenhouse gases and the secure sourcing of oil. Demand for nuclear energy will presumably be greatest in those countries with the highest requirements for energy and those that do not have access to alternative energy sources. Many countries are unable to store nuclear waste within their own borders because of geological, geographical and political reasons. As a result, it is necessary to consider the creation of a cross-border trade in the disposal of nuclear waste.

Understanding of safety issues surrounding nuclear waste has improved significantly since the end of the 20th century. Since nuclear waste is radioactive and slow to decay, it can cause harm for thousands of years. Considerable political and technical controversy surrounds issues relating to the safe storage of the waste. Safety issues must be considered in transporting radioactive material to a desired location. The risks involved include accidental leakage of the radioactive material while en route and attempts to seize the material for purposes of terrorism or extortion. There is also the threat of geological rupture. For example, if an earthquake occurred, it could break open the containment materials holding the nuclear waste. The method widely considered viable for nuclear waste disposal is to contain the radioactive material within a non-reactive barrier and bury it deep within the earth’s crust in a region not known for geological disruption.

The Yucca Mountain project in the state of Nevada in the United States has been designated as one such possible place for nuclear waste disposal. This has, understandably, led to great concern among local residents, as well as those who live near transportation routes. Located some 70 miles from Las Vegas, the site is the only one under active consideration by the U.S. government for the development of high-level nuclear waste disposal. It has been estimated that the use of this facility would require movement of radioactive material through 43 U.S. states and more than 100 cities, and passage through the Great Lakes. Shipments would pass within a mile of millions of American citizens. Throughout the 1990s, the rate of rail accidents involving hazardous material averaged 33 per year. Approximately 10,000 people are also evacuated from their homes each year as a result of the nuclear waste transportation. Accident rates for trucks and barges, which would also be required, are comparable. More than 108,000 shipments of nuclear waste are projected by the U.S. Department of Energy in the next 38 years based on existing trends.

People opposed to the use of nuclear power point to these alarming statistics to argue that it is impossible to guarantee safety. People in favor of nuclear power say that there is little choice but to make sure that the methods of disposal are as safe as possible though some level of risk does exist. Public skepticism about the ability of science to deal with nuclear waste may be a result of the poor image of the nuclear power industry. To create a more positive perception of this industry, there are a variety of ongoing public relations efforts in many nations.

Many scientists have concluded that the practical difficulties involved with deep disposal are surmountable. However, the political controversy surrounding this method of disposal, not to mention the costs involved, means that no such facilities yet exist. Many believe that Australia would be an appropriate repository for the long-term disposal of internationally-produced nuclear waste. They note that Australia is a perfect candidate because of its large central desert area that is lightly populated. Its stable geology and the fact that it is a modern democracy are also pluses. Technical requirements for a nuclear waste repository require a 200-meter-thick barrier between ground level and the disposal area. In addition, there should be predictable and low flows of groundwater and dense sedimentary ground formation. There should also be an absence of any resources, including freshwater. All of these factors are important in choosing a location as they would reduce the likelihood that people would ever live nearby.

Nuclear power undoubtedly leads to some serious risks, including the possible consequences resulting from an accident or malicious intervention. However, it seems likely that there is a need for the use of nuclear energy as an alternative energy source in place of oil and hydrocarbons. It is necessary for science to minimize the risks involved in nuclear waste disposal and for society to determine whether those risks are indeed acceptable.


  1. Rodney Ewing and Alison M. MacFarlane, Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s HighLevel Nuclear Waste (MIT Press, 2006);
  2. Tom Quirk, “The Safe Disposal of Nuclear Waste,” Institute of Public Affairs Review (v.57/2, 2005);
  3. Peter Riley, Nuclear Waste: Law, Policy, and Pragmatism (Ashgate Publishing, 2004).

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