How to solve the problem of nuclear waste

Nuclear power is making a comeback, but critics continue to point to costly and dangerous waste produced. However, new technologies could make such concerns a thing of the past.

I would like to start on the subject of nuclear waste. I have included a picture that shows the amount of nuclear waste that one person generates.

This block contains material chemically identical to high-level waste from reprocessing. A piece this size would contain the total high-level waste arising from nuclear electricity generation for ONE PERSON throughout a normal LIFETIME.

Small isn't it? You'd never believe that it would fit in the palm of your hand but it can.

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So, the amount nuclear waste that needs disposing of is not actually as large as some people think. But it is still dangerous. However, progress has been made on safe disposal methods and I do not believe they are as much of a problem as the anti-nuclear lobby would have us believe.

Indeed, the World Nuclear Association has said that it believes it is a lack of understanding of the science involved which is the main cause of public concerns. It argued that the industry needed to better understand the public psyche rather than the onus being on the public to understand the industry more.

Nuclear waste disposal: pie in the sky

Any discussion about nuclear waste management always appears to raise the prospect of space disposal why don't we just blast the stuff into space? I believe this is an entirely impractical suggestion and not only because of the cost. Imagine a rocket of nuclear waste misfiring over Cape Canaveral. The results of such an explosion are too dreadful to consider. I just can't see it happening.

Initially, high-level radioactive waste is stored in fuel pools so the shorter-lived isotopes decay before further handling. Note that radioactive waste is the only type of toxic waste that gets less toxic with time. So, storage is the key.

To store radioactive waste for long periods of time the waste needs stabilising. This is usually done by the process of vitrification, as in the photograph above. Vitrification is a process of converting a material into a glass-like amorphous solid. The solid is free of any crystalline structure and this is the process that takes place at Sellafield, under the watchful eye of Henry the One-Headed Shrimp.

The process of vitrification forms a substance that is highly resistant to water. This is patently a good thing. The spent fuel is then stored for a very long period of time. I will come onto the storage issue in a moment, but there's something I want to talk about first and that is scientific progress.

The pace of scientific progress over the past 100 years has been astonishing. I believe that the pace of scientific development over the next 100 years will be just as astoundingly fast. Science will find better and better ways to dispose of nuclear waste as they continue with their quest.

Indeed, there is already a process that has been invented that is even better than vitrification. It is currently being used by the US military, but it is expected to hit the commercial nuclear market soon. It was invented by an Australian in 1978 and it is called Synroc.

Synroc is regarded as the single most effective and durable means of immobilising various forms of high-level radioactive wastes for disposal. So far

Synroc is a particular kind of 'Synthetic Rock' invented in 1978 by Professor Ted Ringwood of the Australian National University. It is an advanced ceramic comprising geochemically stable natural titanate minerals which have immobilised uranium and thorium for billions of years.

Nuclear waste disposal: Nature leads the way

These can incorporate into their crystal structures nearly all of the elements present in high-level radioactive waste and so immobilise them. In short, it is a form of synthetic rock that immobilised the radioactive isotopes just like Mother Nature does. After all, radio active elements exist naturally all over the world. We didn't invent them with the invention of nuclear power.

A lot of work has gone into finding places to store these treated products with the first expected to be ready to take waste by 2010. There are even talks about a global repository which would be built in either the Russian taiga or the Australian outback.

Indeed, although there has been some substantial antagonism towards this idea in Australia, there is movement on the issue. Just last months a group of Australian Aborigines agreed to have a nuclear waste dump placed on their outback land in return for millions of dollars in benefits.

Under the deal, the dump will be built on land leased to the government by the Ngapa clan at Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory, who will get it back in 200 years when it is declared safe. As can well be expected, there was a bit of controversy about the decision with protesters declaring that:

'This is the first step to making Australia a global nuclear waste dump. It's Howard's vision for the country.'

Well, it doesn't seem like a bad idea to me. The vast central area of Australia is not much use for anything else, after all.

Nuclear waste disposal: America's repository is under construction

You probably haven't heard much about Yucca Mountain but you will soon. It is a large ridge in the US State of Nevada - and it the site of the proposed Yucca Mountain Repository for spent nuclear reactor fuel and other radioactive waste.

Should everything go correctly, Yucca Mountain will be ready to accept nuclear waste by 2017. Currently work is being carried out to determine whether Yucca Mountain is suitable. The proposed repository zone will cover 1150 acres, be 300 metres below the surface of the mountain and 300 metres above the water table. The waste will be encased in a multilayer stainless steel and nickel alloy package covered by titanium drip shields that function also as rock shields.

Yucca Mountains is the moist extensively studied geological area in the world. No other rocks have been examined so closely. So far, the geology looks good and things look on track for Yucca Mountain to finally accept waste in 10 years' time.

However, there is another way of storage that is altogether neater. This is called Remix & Return and I believe it offers the potential to deal with the waste in the most environmentally safe way possible. It involves recreating nature, which cannot be a bad thing.

Nuclear waste disposal: Diluting toxicity

Remix & Return involved blending high-level waste with lower level waste and mill tailings to the level that is below the original radioactivity of the uranium ore dug up from the ground. This can then be used to "fill in" empty uranium mines.

This will mean that no high-level waste will be left to be disposed of and it will provide extended work for miners as the mine is filled up after it has come to the end of its natural life. The radiation generated by the stuff placed back in the ground will be of the same level or lower than the original uranium ore. This sounds like a truly elegant solution to the problem.

Remember we are not creating uranium out of thin air. Uranium ore in its natural setting also leaks radon gas and other radioactive substances.

So, the question of disposing of nuclear waste is an important one, but I believe it not an insurmountable obstacle. We will find better ways of disposing of the waste over the next 10 or 20 years. I do not think the waste issue is something to be feared. We will find a solution.

By Garry White for his Garry Writes' newsletter. To find out more about his monthly newsletter, Outstanding Investments, which expands on his views and makes specific recommendations in the resource, infrastructure and biotech sectors, click here: Outstanding Investments

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