In some very important ways, “nuclear waste” is the best type of energy-related waste.
First let’s be crystal clear on what we’re talking about: the irradiated fuel discharged from conventional nuclear reactors, the long assemblies of metal-clad ceramic pellets that have generated heat to raise steam to drive big generators for years of steady bulk electricity — without direct greenhouse gas emissions. Not cold war military waste. Not contamination from accidents. We’re talking about used fuel from properly operating reactors because it’s by far the hottest, bulkiest stuff that the industry has to deal with.
The EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre recently concluded that nuclear energy is as sustainable as other technologies already considered clean and sustainable by the EU. This specifically includes consideration of waste (echoing comprehensive work from nearly half a century ago), which of course is a factor for all technologies. But in contrast to any other sources of energy — especially fossil fuels which have never had to contain their by-products — the options for dealing with waste from nuclear plants have been under development for decades and are now being put into actual practice at the national scale.
Deep Geological Repository
To lessen its reliance on foreign energy and to help meet its goal of carbon-neutrality by 2035…
The notion of scientific consensus is probably familiar to everyone from discussions around climate change, vaccines, GMOs and other technical issues. The scientific consensus on repositories like Finland’s is that it’s an effective method of disposal for used nuclear fuel.
Directional Drillhole Disposal
This innovative solution from Deep Isolation offers potential advantages:
Construction costs of drillhole repositories are expected to be considerably lower than those for conventional mined repositories, mainly because of the drastically reduced excavation volume, the use of off-the-shelf equipment for drilling and waste emplacement, the simplicity of the engineered barrier system, the potential avoidance of repackaging and transportation and the fact that no ancillary infrastructure is needed to support humans working underground. Moreover, the modular concept allows for staged, fast implementation and immediate closure, thus reducing the considerable costs for interim storage and operation of an open repository.
Estonia has begun engaging with Deep Isolation as part of the nation’s modernised consideration of nuclear energy adoption, underscoring the current state-of-the-art in new nuclear energy policy.
Disposition in Integral Fast Reactors
(The related paper can be found here.)
On the one hand, the final waste eventually produced by repeated recycling in IFRs still needs isolation for a couple of centuries. On the other, this route also offers a permanent disposal method for decommissioned nuclear weapons material. In fact, generating huge volumes of emissions-free power is the only demonstrated way of achieving this so far, albeit incidentally in conventional US nuclear plants.
Solutions have to find willing host communities, and the progress in Finland, Sweden, and France, the ongoing work in Canada and South Australia is helping to define how readily achievable this is under a fundamentally voluntary process founded on knowledge and benefit sharing.
Oscar Archer holds a PhD in chemistry and has been analysing energy issues for over 15 years, focusing on nuclear technology for seven, with a background in manufacturing and QA. He helps out at Adelaide-based Bright New World as Senior Advisor (we want your support!) and writes for The Fourth Generation. Find him @OskaArcher on Twitter.