As mankind strives for more and more progress at an exponentially high growth, the debate over the credibility of nuclear power generation at the cost of the hazardous wastes it generates and its disposal, still lingers on. Having been an overtly controversial issue right from its birth, the problem still stagnates in the same pool with hardly any development in the issue related policies.
Nevertheless, it goes without saying that nuclear power generation is the most viable solution to the world’s ever growing energy demands. But what may turn the tables round is the fact that the storage of nuclear waste may turn out to be one of the biggest if not the only biggest expenses of the nuclear power industry.
The major problem with the nuclear waste is that it remains dangerously radioactive till it decays naturally which is an unbelievable 24,000 years in the case of Plutonium-239, a particularly lethal constituent in the nuclear waste. While there are several temporary nuclear waste storages currently employed, a permanent solution continues to be on the hunt.
Delving a little deeper into the scientific procedure involved in the production of these wastes, what happens is that the spent nuclear rods, being extremely hot once removed from the reactor, are cooled by dipping in a temporary pool often located near the reactor (wet-storage). While the obligatory time period for the storage of the rods in the pool is only 6 months, but due to the absence of any permanent storage, they remain there for years, thereby resulting in over- crowding of the pool with spent nuclear rods. However, it is not just the spent nuclear rods, but also the mining, refining and enrichment of uranium, the nuclear fuel, and the production of plutonium which profoundly affects the entire ecosystem by contaminating the surrounding area, including the groundwater, air, land, plants, and equipments.
There are a number of proposals with regard to the dumping of these wastes.The low-level wastes, which are not highly radioactive can be buried near the earth’s surface and will lose their radioactivity and toxicity in a couple of hundred years.
The major concern deals with the highly radioactive high-level waste like the spent fuel rods which are harder to get rid of. Some solutions that have been put forth include underground storage, burial beneath the ocean floor and even as dramatic as shooting it off to the moon! Luckily the lunar idea has been done away with due to transportation and related difficulties besides making our only satellite inaccessible to future investigations. The most popular idea till date has been underground burial referred to as “deep geological disposal”. However, this is not the end of the story as the solution brings along with it a new set of apprehensive concerns. The waste has to be stored in tightly sealed casks else it could seep through and come in contact with human population and wildlife and cause havoc henceforth. Also, it needs to be ensured that the burial site does not harbour much of flowing underground water else the water could erode the canisters and carry along the nuclear waste thereby allowing its entry into the ecological cycle. Another point to be kept in mind is that the site should be away from any geological activity and fault lines. It does not seem a brilliant idea to take all the pains to store the waste only to be erupted back by earthquakes and volcanoes!
Having read in school books about the chain reactions, one might be tempted to consider re-cycling of nuclear wastes as the flawless solution. However, investigating at the micro-level, it does not seem as such a practical idea due to increased proliferation risks. Re-cycling is already banned in U.S. as the reprocessed material can be easily used in constructing bombs.
As a step towards a permanent solution to nuclear waste disposal, the Yucca Mountain near Nevada in US has been proposed. Being extremely dry, far from Las Vegas, the nearest human habitation and prone to near zero risk of volcano eruption, it appears to be an apparently ideal site. Even though work has already begun on the site with this regard, the people of Nevada have staged a NIMBY(Not In My Back Yard) demonstration citing that no one can actually guarantee that the radioactive waste will not leak. Despite this ongoing debate for almost three decades now, it is proposed that the site will be ready by 2010.
While repository sites in Argentina, China, southern Africa and Russia are also under consideration, no one can deny the basic question which will haunt mankind for centuries to come – who guarantees the best of measures will ensure cent per cent safety? Are we giving in to a complacent compromise towards science at the cost of humanity? Are we not paving the way to a possibility of complete eradication of not just human race but all known species? Hasn’t the gamble been played long enough and the time has come to pay one’s dues?