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The Nuclear Waste Disposal Dilemma

by Martina Igini Americas Asia Europe Sep 12th 20225 mins
The Nuclear Waste Disposal Dilemma

In the nuclear energy debate, those who oppose its use often cite nuclear waste disposal as one of the biggest disadvantages. Indeed, the highly toxic byproducts of nuclear reactors can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. While countries around the world stumble, Finland has come up with a breakthrough solution: bury its nuclear waste 430 metres below ground. 

What Is Nuclear Waste and Why Is It Dangerous?

In the nuclear energy equation, the storage and disposal of nuclear waste play a huge role. This comes in two forms: from leftover fuels used in nuclear power plants and from facilities involved in nuclear weapons production. Regardless of the source, this hazardous waste contains highly poisonous chemicals like plutonium and uranium pellets. These extremely toxic materials remain highly radioactive for tens of thousands of years, posing a threat to agricultural land, fishing waters, freshwater sources, and humans. For this reason, it is crucial that they are meticulously and permanently disposed of. 

Two of the world’s biggest nuclear accidents – the Fukushima nuclear disaster (2011) and the Chernobyl disaster (1986) – were responsible for the release of a significant amount of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere, which created huge consequences for people and the environment. These disasters raised concerns about the storage and disposal of nuclear waste and led governments to find safer alternatives to this form of energy. However, in recent years, countries like France, the US, China, and India have shown renewed interest in nuclear power, announcing plans to build new plants in the years ahead as part of their net-zero roadmaps. According to Rystad Energy, investments in nuclear are projected to reach USD$46 billion in 2023, up from USD$44 billion in 2021. Furthermore, following the energy crisis amid the conflict in Ukraine, European countries that are highly dependent on Russian oil like Belgium delayed their plans for a nuclear phaseout. While this form of electricity is emission-free and thus a better alternative to highly polluting fossil fuels, the decision of several nations to keep relying on nuclear energy sparked fears related to the dangers of highly radioactive spent fuel. Indeed, while 55 new reactors across the world are currently being built, not enough people are considering the complexity of dismantling plants and storing nuclear waste.

How Are Countries Dealing With Nuclear Waste?

Since the 1950s, when early commercial nuclear power stations started operating, more than 250,000 tonnes of highly toxic nuclear waste have been accumulated and spread across 14 countries worldwide. In most cases, the highly radioactive material is collected and stored in inactive nuclear power plants. In the case of Chernobyl, some of the plant’s reactors still contain an enormous amount of waste that will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years. In 2019, one reactor was finally encased below an enormous steel and concrete structure. However, the USD$1.6-billion construction will safely store the radioactive material for only about a century and is thus just a temporary solution.

Ukraine is not the only country that decided to store nuclear waste in power plants that are no longer operating. The largest quantity of untreated nuclear waste on the planet is currently stored in the Sellafield plant in the UK. Yet, the maintenance of these sites can be extremely costly and it requires a large amount of manpower. Despite having shut down in 2003, more than 100,000 employees are involved in ongoing cleanup and nuclear-decommissioning activities at Sellafield that are expected to last more than a century and will cost the government a staggering USD$118 billion. While these temporary measures prove to be a safe solution to nuclear waste storage, engineers are now studying ways to dispose of it permanently. 

What About Nuclear Necropolis? The Example of Finland

One of the best solutions so far seems to be to bury nuclear waste underground and about a dozen European countries have already made plans for deep geological repositories for their spent fuel. However, their plans have hit political roadblocks. The first and only successful example of this kind to date is Finland’s plan to entomb its 2,300 tonnes of high-level waste in an underground hardrock mine. After decades of negotiations, planning, and long geological and environmental considerations, the Finnish government selected the Island of Olkiluoto – located in the municipality of Eurajoki and home to two of the country’s four reactors, which generate 32% of the total electricity in the country – as the most suitable location for a long-term storage facility. In 2004, works began encapsulating waste inside copper canisters, which were buried in 400-450-metre deep underground tunnels below the island’s granite bedrock. Now, Finland is close to completing the world’s first long-term nuclear waste disposal site, which is expected to be operational in 2023. 

Despite the government ensuring that its disposal facility – which cost approximately €2.6 billion (USD$3.4 billion) – is “final”, doubts remain this can truly be a long-term solution. Because nothing of this kind has ever been built before in human history, Finland’s project does not come without huge technical uncertainties and unpredictable factors that could compromise a facility that authorities hope will store nuclear waste for at least 100,000 years. If something were to go wrong, future generations could risk immense widespread pollution.

A Future Outlook on Nuclear Waste Disposal

Despite a growing number of countries around the world making plans to shift toward renewable energies in the race to meet their net-zero targets in the coming decades, not all governments are ready to abandon nuclear energy altogether, with many delaying the nuclear phaseout or even building new plants. An undeniable issue associated with this type of energy is the disposal and storage of highly radioactive leftover fuel. It is undeniable that significant progress in the safe and effective management of toxic materials has been made in recent years. However, no country in the world has yet come up with a reliable permanent solution to store nuclear waste. While Finland’s repository might be the world’s first-ever successful long-term storage facility, doubts remain that it will last that long. Furthermore, the extremely high costs associated with building the underground site as well as the potentially destructive consequences that the local community and the surrounding environment will face should something go wrong are not worth the risk. Instead of relying on a potentially destructive energy source like nuclear power, countries should put more effort into shifting to renewables.

EO’s Position: There are a multitude of advantages and disadvantages of nuclear energy and the debate on whether to keep this technology or find other alternatives is destined to continue in the years to come. Nuclear power can be a highly destructive weapon, but the risks of a nuclear catastrophe are relatively low. While historic nuclear disasters can be counted on the fingers of a single hand, they are remembered for their devastating impact and the life-threatening consequences they sparked (or almost sparked). However, it is important to remember that fossil fuels like coal and oil represent a much bigger threat and silently kill millions of people every year worldwide. 

You might also like: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Nuclear Energy

About the Author

Martina Igini

Martina is the Managing Editor at Earth.Org. She holds two BA degrees, in Translation/Interpreting Studies and Journalism, and a MA in International Development from the University of Vienna. After working at the United Nations Global Communication Department in Vienna, she joined a newspaper in Italy as a reporter before moving to Hong Kong in 2020. Her interests include sustainability and the role of public policy in environmental protection with a focus on developing countries.

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