The explosive issue of nuclear waste.

“The failure to properly address waste disposal in the first decades of nuclear energy development has left a legacy of doubt in the minds of the public and politicians over its overall safety.”

The above quote comes from  Tomihiro Taniguchi, the deputy director general for nuclear safety and security at the International Atomic Energy Agency, who was speaking at a conference in Bern in October. He adds, “If this doubt is not ameliorated soon, it could well lead to all the ambitious plans to expand the use of nuclear power on a global scale being significantly delayed.”

Around the world, waste and spent fuel are stored on an interim basis in pools of water or in casks, many near ground level. That leads to concerns about the vulnerability of the materials to disasters like terrorist attacks, and it raises persistent questions about whether the materials can be effectively monitored for periods that exceed recorded human history many times over.

Firing neutrons at waste in a process called transmutation shortens the time needed for radioactivity to decay. Reprocessing spent fuel reduces its volume and its toxicity. But neither procedure eliminates waste entirely. So international officials like Taniguchi say permanent disposal in a combination of clay and rock, or in salt domes, is the best option for isolating these long-term residues.

Finland’s deep disposal site / Yucca mountain delays

Posiva, a waste disposal company owned by Finnish nuclear operators, is digging a tunnel at Olkiluoto, an island in the west of Finland, in anticipation of final approval for storing waste underground at a depth of 500 meters, or 1,640 feet. Burial could begin in 2020. That could make the site the first of its kind in the world, demonstrating to opponents of nuclear power that long-term disposal is feasible, and helping the Finnish nuclear industry save money on storage in future decades.

But the Finnish case is exceptional. Many residents in the Olkiluoto area accept nuclear facilities because there are already nuclear power plants on the island that provide employment and hefty tax revenue. The local geology also turned out to be favorable.

For decades, the U.S. authorities have sought to put high-level waste inside Yucca Mountain. President George W. Bush approved the process in 2002, but Nevada’s governor vetoed the plan. Although Congress overrode that veto and government officials say they could open a site there by 2017 if all goes according to schedule, few people consider that timetable realistic.The prospect of sustained opposition from Nevada has left U.S. officials hinting at the need to restrict transparency in the future.

Japan’s failure to subsidize a deep burial site

In Japan, which generates a third of its electricity at nuclear plants and where the authorities are aiming to raise that proportion, the central government is offering annual subsidies of as much as ¥2 billion, or $17.3 million, to municipalities that volunteer to be considered as disposal sites.

In January, Toyo, a rural town in southern Japan, was the first to apply for the subsidies. But some town assembly members and residents, as well as neighboring local governments, protested. Toyo’s mayor, Yasuoki Tashima, who backed the project, called an early election to seek endorsement for his plan, but it was overwhelmingly rejected. His successor promptly withdrew the application, saying that the town had narrowly avoided a “reckless act.”

Kenji Ogiwara, deputy minister of economy, trade and industry, said no other municipalities had applied since the failure of the Toyo project. Ogiwara, who spoke at the Bern conference, also seemed to say that the Japanese government should get tougher, nominating sites rather than waiting for volunteers.

Finally, to the Swiss

Voters in Nidwalden, a canton of Switzerland, rebuffed the government twice, in 1995 and in 2002, on plans to bury waste at a site there. After those setbacks, Switzerland passed a law that took effect in 2005 depriving cantons of the right to veto plans to bury waste but allowing for a national vote on the final selection of a site.

Clearly governments across the world are beginning to run out of options on where best to put current and future nuclear waste. Their frustration appears to be leading to the creation of undemocratic and draconian laws designed to take any discussion of siting waste away from their voters.

Maybe the way for voters to deal with this is to vote out such governments.


This entry was posted in Energy, Nuclear, Planning, Politics, Pollution, Protest, Waste and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The explosive issue of nuclear waste.

  1. earthpal says:

    Absolutely Matt.

    Some people think the UK should build a facility to convert radioactive waste into fuel for the proposed new reactors.

    Of course it sounds appealing but as usual, the devil is in the detail.

  2. matt says:

    Good link there EP.

    > Companies will want to build the plants because they don’t emit carbon dioxide, which is becoming more costly as efforts to curb climate change intensify, according to the former government advisor.

    Amazing isn’t it how the government’s carbon market scheme fits snugly with their other policy of building new nuclear power stations.

    So a guy called Alun Ellis is to head the program for developing a U.K. waste repository. And this after the government ministry responsible for the environment said it got support for plans for an underground storage site. Support from whom?!

    And Mr King says it will be in Cumbria. Yes, no doubt true because the people who already benefit from the nuclear industry at Sellafield in Cumbria won’t kick up a fuss. Same situation as in Finland.

    Interesting how all these decisions and appointments are coming at once. Get the feeling the government’s decision to go ahead on building more stations has opened the barn door wide open …

    The race is on. There’s money to be made. Lot’s of it.

  3. the Grit says:

    Hi y’all,

    This is a subject near and dear to my heart. The solution to nuclear waste, which the industry here in the US tried repeatedly to get our Government to accept back in the 1970s, is reprocessing. After the used uranium pellets have all of the useful stuff extracted, like plutonium and several isotopes that are used in medical procedures and any leftover U235, the remains are actually less radioactive, when mixed with the mining waste, than the original ore. I’m still wondering why our environmental movement, which managed to block this plan, decided that, in this one case, recycling was a bad thing.

    the Grit

  4. matt says:

    > I’m still wondering why our environmental movement, which managed to block this plan, decided that, in this one case, recycling was a bad thing.

    Interesting angle on the argument there Grit. Here in the UK reprocessing at Sellafield has been going on for decades, although not without hiccups since they privatised operations there. Operations I believe have now wound down although our ex-scientific adviser to govt is suggesting recycling starts up again in conjunction with a new N-station building programme/operation drive.

  5. the Grit says:

    Hi Matt,

    As I recall, the prevailing feeling during the late 70s – early 80s by the PC crowd over here was extremely anti-military (and anti-Government, anti-business, anti-democracy, anti-work, and anti-deodorant) so they were against it since the military was for it. Of course, they were against almost everything else except for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, so their opposition to nuclear waste reprocessing may have just been the result of having a good opportunity to get stoned, chain themselves together, and chant “no more nukes.”

    I’ll have to do some research on your Sellafield operation. Besides liking the name, since one of our brewing arguments is whether or not to start building N-plants again, what with the recent discovery that CO2 is Evil, it should make a good post.

    Y’all keep up the good work,
    the Grit

  6. earthpal says:

    Hi folks.

    Regarding the reprocessing, the waste is already recycled here as Matt says. But it is not without its downside.

    Spent fuel rods are transported up and down the country (and from country to country) to be reprocessed. The rods do leak. We don’t hear of it but it happens. And reprocessing causes more contamination and even more waste. Its a perpetual motion.

  7. matt says:

    Yes, the transportation of N-waste via rail is of course very secretive. Occasionally you hear of possible glow leaks from a possible mishap during transportation. Last one I heard of was from a train going through London … yes, that’s right through London, a city with a population of 8 million. Not very smart. In fact down right hazardous.

    And lets not talk about ships rolling through heavy seas; accidents, fish stocks … fish & chips on a Friday.

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