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Waste

Like fossil fuels, the nuclear fuel raw materials come from the Earth.  Uranium, the primary fuel material, is mined.   The power from one kilogram of uranium is approximately equivalent to 100,000 kilograms of oil; therefore, as a function of power consumption, very little uranium needs to be removed from the ground; hence, the environmental impact of uranium mines is much less compared with mining and drilling for fossil fuels. Unused nuclear fuel is only slightly more radioactive than uranium naturally occurring underground.  Fuel delivery casks are designed with a high margin of safety to ensure that even in the event of a transportation accident, the environment remains free of contamination from the nuclear fuel.

The waste from nuclear power retains the same volume advantage as mined uranium and can be safely returned to the Earth for underground storage. In contrast, fossil fuel waste is too large and unmanageable to be contained and is dispersed into the environment.

Under present policies, fossil fuels and nuclear energy operate under different rules. For fossil fuel waste, governments – under public pressure for ‘cheap energy’ – have allowed the environment to be used as a free dumpsite. Meanwhile, in most countries the price charged for nuclear power includes an allocation set aside for the cost of storing and disposing of its waste permanently and safely.

Due to effective shielding and containment, waste from civil nuclear power has never caused harm to any person or to the environment. For nuclear waste that is highly radioactive, well-designed long-term storage is needed while its radioactivity decays to natural levels. But far from being an ‘unsolvable’ problem, waste disposal is a comparative asset of nuclear energy – because there is so little. The spent fuel produced yearly from all the world’s reactors would fit inside a two-story structure built on a basketball court.

Modern civilization produces huge quantities of industrial waste requiring careful treatment and disposal of which nuclear waste is comparatively tiny in amount and highly manageable. In contrast, chemical wastes are thousands of times greater in volume; can remain permanently toxic; and represent a disposal problem far more difficult.

Radiation scientists, geologists and engineers have produced detailed plans for safe underground storage of nuclear waste. A stable geological formation constitutes a highly reliable barrier. Extra layers of protection come from ‘multiple engineered barriers’, including the ceramic fuel itself and robust containers built for high-longevity. Geological repositories are designed to ensure that harmful radiation would not reach the surface even with severe earthquakes or the passage of time. Waste can be retrieved if new technologies offer ways to re-use the material or hasten radioactive decay.

Nature has provided a good example of nuclear waste ‘storage’. About two billion years ago, in what is now Gabon in Africa, a rich natural uranium deposit produced a spontaneous series of large nuclear reactions. Since then, despite thousands of centuries of tropical rain and subsurface water, the long-lived radioactive ‘waste’ from those ‘reactors’ has migrated less than 10 metres.

(excerpted from World Nuclear Association's autoessay "Energy for Sustainable Development")


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