Though there are many causes of pollution that are widely discussed, one threat to the environment that is not given much attention is the threat of nuclear waste.Nuclear waste has many sources that are divided into two categories. One category is nuclear fuel cycle waste, which consists of waste generated from the separation and processing of uranium to produce nuclear fuel, from the use of nuclear reactors for any purpose and from the subsequent use of any materials used to make either the nuclear reactor or the fuel. The other category consists of all the waste that is not included in the nuclear fuel cycle waste, that is, naturally occurring or accelerator produced radioactive material (NARM). Naturally produced radioactive material includes spent radium sources, residues from processing various ores and minerals, coal ash from electricity generation and phosphate waste from fertilizer production. Accelerator produced waste includes any waste arising from the production of medical radioisotopes used in making accelerators and the use of these radioisotopes. In general, NARM waste has received less attention than nuclear fuel cycle waste.
At the beginning of this new century, the problem of nuclear waste disposal becomes more and more significant as the end of the operating time of most nuclear plants draws near. Though there are many debates on nuclear power and nuclear missiles, very few discuss the disposal of nuclear waste and even fewer discuss the closing of nuclear plants as a viable option.
Nuclear waste can be classified as ‘low level’ or ‘high level’ waste. Low level waste is comparatively easy to dispose of since it takes about 10 to 50 years for the radioactive isotopes in the waste to decay, after which it can be disposed of as normal waste. High level waste on the hand requires a time period of several thousand years, which brings up a whole mass of related issues. For one thing, the time span itself is overwhelming, considering that some radioactive waste takes about 20,000 years to decay and it was just about 3000 years ago that the Egyptian Empire was making its pyramids. For another, the creators of the storage system will not be around to see that it is implemented past a certain point, so it must be good enough to last through long periods of time.
There are three ways to deal with high level waste. It can be stored for a short term of 10 years after which it is shifted to a storage area suitable for a longer period of storage. The third is transmutation, by which a high level isotope is converted into low level isotopes which have a shorter life and are easier to dispose of. The criteria for a long term storage area are very specific, however. The area must be strong enough to last beyond the death of its creators, since it will take more than that for the waste to decay. It must be immune to interference from any geological disturbances such as earthquakes and the waste must not be allowed to contaminate either the air or the water supply. Some locations being considered for this storage are space and the sea bed.
The threat arising form nuclear waste is obvious. Samples of it still haunt Hiroshima and Nagasaki to this day. Radiation poisoning leads to serious birth defects, life threatening lung diseases and cancer. There is no way to stop radiation once it has spread, except to let it fade on its own and that takes a very long time. Generations of people may be born and may die in the same harmful environment that their predecessors lived in. Death rates go up and birth rates go down. Such conditions are not fit for human habitation.
One way to save human beings is of course to evacuate. But these days, with the world’s population being what it is, evacuation is not an easy process. Another solution is to go to the source itself and implement the right techniques of nuclear waste disposal. Instead of discussing the creation of more nuclear weaponry, there should be discussion on how to dispose off the waste that has already been created. In 2006, radioactive material was removed from Chechnya and returned to Russia for safekeeping.
More activity of this sort towards the disposal of material that is not yet a full fledged threat would make the world a lot safer.