Nuclear waste has been an intractable problem since nuclear power was invented more than 50 years ago, and for many countries it is becoming an ever more expensive and politically embarrassing issue.
Not that politicians would admit this: many still argue that nuclear power is an answer to climate change, forgetting that they are passing the waste buck to future generations.
To those in power the solution to the waste problem is always just around the corner, conveniently just beyond their term of office. But the history of the industry over the last four decades, across the globe, is of dozens of failed schemes.
Currently the United States, France and the UK are yet again wrestling with the problem of repeated failed attempts to find a solution, as scientists warn that continued neglect of the issue is placing citizens in increasing danger.
The situation in China and Russia is not known, apart from the fact that in Russia there have recently been mysterious atmospheric leaks of radiation detected as far away as Switzerland.
Getting an honest overall situation report from the Russian government or from China seems unlikely, since many of their nuclear sites remain closed territories.
The problem is that civil nuclear industries, especially when they are combined with a weapons programme, produce plutonium and other by-products in spent fuel that take as long as 100,000 years to decay.
Identifying somewhere to put these wastes where they could be safe for that length of time requires stable geological formations that are very hard to find anywhere. Since international law requires the state that produced the waste to dispose of it within its own boundaries, this is even more difficult.
If democracy is added into the mix, and people are given the right to object to a deep depository being built in their backyard, then in some countries the problem appears to be insoluble.
Both are building deep depositories for their biggest problem, spent nuclear fuel. Fortunately spent fuel is less complex than the waste generated by the UK, France or the US, because it has no highly dangerous detritus remaining from nuclear weapon manufacturing.
For these three states, which have all reprocessed spent fuel to extract weapons grade plutonium, the situation is far more difficult. Despite this, all three countries are continuing to build nuclear power stations, potentially making the problem even worse for future generations.
The prime example is the UK, which wants to build a new generation of ten nuclear stations, but has just started its sixth search for a nuclear waste dump site in 42 years.
Various governments have gone through many proposals, some of them surviving through years of public consultations, planning inquiries and geological investigations, only to be finally rejected.
One favoured site, at Sellafield in Cumbria, next to the country’s two vast reprocessing facilities, was rejected on geological grounds – the rock it was to be built into has too many cracks to keep the waste from leaching into the water supply.
The latest scheme launched by the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy involves finding a community somewhere in Britain willing to take the waste in return for a very large bribe in the form of cash to develop schools, roads, industries and anything else that takes their fancy—as long as they host the nation’s nuclear waste for the next 100,000 years. It remains to be seen whether there are any takers.
The problem for the government is that it has frequently pledged not to build any more nuclear power stations until it has solved the problem of the waste, something it has patently failed to do. Meanwhile ever larger quantities of waste are being stored, much of it in unsatisfactory and sometimes dangerous conditions. Just keeping it safe costs £3bn (US$4.2bn) a year.
In the US, where the situation is as bad or worse, President Trump has re-opened the long-running saga of Yucca Mountain nuclear depository. This is a scheme that has been fought over for decades and abandoned because of local opposition.
The problem is that the waste stored in numerous US nuclear facilities is dangerous and urgently needs to be packaged and found a final resting place.
One of the most critical places is Hanford, once a place for making nuclear weapons that now has stores of unstable waste. The tanks full of liquid waste alone will cost an estimated $111bn to package and make safe. Trump’s reaction to this has been to slash Hanford’s budget by 10 per cent.
Meanwhile the answer from Nevada state officials to Trump’s proposal to re-open the Yucca Mountain depository scheme was to approve a $5.1mn legal contract to fight the proposal. It seems unlikely the situation will be resolved soon.
In north-eastern France hundreds of riot police were employed this month to evict 15 protestors living in tree houses to protect a zone in the forest of Lejuc, near Meuse.
The use of 500 armed gendarmes to evict 15 people has been strongly criticised, not least because the government has not yet finally agreed that this is the right site to bury 85,000 cubic metres of waste that will remain dangerous for 100,000 years.
The problem for these three governments—and others in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and many other states that built nuclear power stations in the last century—is the growing urgency of finding a solution.
In Britain, France and the US there are “swimming pool-size tanks” of high-level waste which are unstable and need work without delay.
With one third of Europe’s operating nuclear power stations due to be shut down by 2025, and European utilities short of €118bn (US$145bn) in decommissioning and waste management funds to pay for the work, it looks as though taxpayers will be left to foot this enormous bill.
Knowing this, companies are queuing up to get into the nuclear waste business, confident that governments will sooner or later be forced to step in and provide the money to keep their citizens safe.
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