Nuclear waste or radioactive waste is a type of waste that contains radioactive materials. These unintended radioactive materials are a by-product of nuclear power houses and research facilities that deal with applications of nuclear technology and experiments involving nuclear fission. Most of this kind of waste is harmful to ecosystems and living organisms. Stringent laws have been imposed by various governments of the world in order to control nuclear waste. There are an existing 450 nuclear reactors with many more still under construction 1, thus hazardous radioactive waste is no longer the problem of the future.
Disposing Nuclear waste has been a very controversial topic over the years. Nuclear waste is usually stored in underground facilities that are reinforced with solid materials to avoid any kind of radiation leak. The United States being the most dominant nuclear power of the world has 100 nuclear reactors.2 In the 1980’s the US had plans to dump nuclear waste in a facility under the Yucca Mountain in the Nevada, but due to opposition from the locals the construction and operation of this project has been bumpy. Who would want a nuclear dustbin in their backyard? No one would certainly want to, especially if their state itself wasn’t home to any nuclear reactor.
Another alternative that some people would suggest is dumping the hazardous radioactive waste into space. Why not collect all the nuclear waste and send it out on a rocket to space or even the sun for that matter.
Problems with disposing radioactive waste into space:
- Too expensive: It would take millions of dollars to safely transport all the nuclear waste to one destination and send it to outer space using a rocket. The combined cost of fuel, building a rocker and other space related equipment is many times more expensive than creating radioactive waste facilities. A crucial point to remember here, nuclear plants are business driven. These are commercial entities and spending too much money would cut down profits or even result in loses. Hence cost is a hindrance.
- Rocket failure: There have been countless incidents of rockets blowing up in mid-air. Space X had 3 failed launches before they finally took off. Imagine a rocket containing tones of nuclear waste blowing up in mid-air and spreading out, falling in civilian areas. Even if a rocket fell into an ocean it would destroy entire ecosystems.
- Space debris: Let us for once ignore the amount of money a rocket would need to fly into space, and lets even assume that the rocket is perfect, once it throws all the waste into space, we would have a pile of nuclear garbage floating around the earth. The only thing that could influence or control it is gravity. Future space endeavors could be affected due to this debris. A satellite could bump into a fortified box of waste and break down.
Another crazy idea is launching a rocket carrying nuclear waste, towards the sun. The sun being so hot, its heat waves would wipe the cargo carrying nuclear waste off its existence. All this assuming fuel is free and unlimited. But another problem is escaping the earth’s gravity in order to reach the sun. The earth moves at a speed of 30km/s around the sun. To reach the sun, a rocket would need to be launched at a speed of 30km/s to counter the earth’s movement and then dive towards the sun. The video below has a good explanation of this.
Methods of radioactive disposal:
Geological disposal: In this method, like the one in Yucca Mountains in Nevada, the waste is buried deep underneath the surface of the earth, away from civilization. Such sites are usually located in deserts away from water bodies, just in case there is a nuclear leak. The lifespan of this facility is dependent of the half-life of the nuclear waste. Half-life of a radioactive substance is the time a radioactive substance takes to decay into half of its initial value. Thus if a certain element would take 10,000 years to decay into a negligible quantity, that’s how much the life span of the facility should ideally be.
Nuclear reprocessing: It is the technique of extracting usable plutonium from residue nuclear fuel. Depending on the reactor, other elements like uranium can also be extracted. Even though reprocessing allows us to reuse certain substances, it still does not entirely get rid of nuclear waste and generates a lot of heat. Thus we still need to resort to geological disposal grounds.
Nuclear transmutation: The elements in the nuclear waste are converted into different elements at an atomic level. There has been not much success in this field and transmutation might result into consumption of a lot of energy to power up the nuclear reactor.
To conclude, we can state that a lot of research still needs to be done from a long term prospectus. We need to take into account the amount of waste generated and the half-life of the elements. The alarming end of it is that developing countries are slowing getting into nuclear power and have no vision citing waste disposal.