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The Problem of Nuclear Waste Storage

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Generating electricity by splitting uranium atoms is one way to reduce the release of greenhouse gases. The downside is that the process creates highly toxic waste that will remain dangerous for thousands of years. How do we protect future generations from the hazard we are leaving behind?

Nuclear Power Growth

There are currently 440 nuclear power stations in the world and 50 more are under construction. The World Nuclear Association reports that “Over 100 power reactors . . . are on order or planned, and over 300 more are proposed. Most reactors currently planned are in the Asian region, with fast-growing economies and rapidly-rising electricity demand.”

Phys.org says “Currently, there is a global stockpile of around 250,000 tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel distributed across some 14 countries.”

At present, much of this hazardous waste is stored in cooling ponds which allows the spent fuel to decay. The water in the ponds is constantly circulated to draw off heat and the spent fuel remains submerged for a decade or two. But, this is a short-term strategy.

Some wastes, such as caesium-137 take only a few decades for half their radioactivity to decay (called their half-life). Others, such as iodine-129, have a half-life estimated to be 15.7 million years.

A 2019 Greenpeace report notes that “More than 65 years after the start of the civil use of nuclear power, not a single country can claim that it has the solution to manage the most dangerous radioactive wastes.”

The nuclear industry paints a much rosier picture.

Treating Nuclear Waste

The World Nuclear Association tells us that “Nuclear waste is neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial waste.”

Wastes vary in toxicity:

  • Low-level wastes such as those created through nuclear medicine can be disposed of safely by shallow burial.
  • Intermediate-level wastes can be encapsulated in concrete before burial.
  • High-level wastes are the ones that have to be dealt with carefully. They represent only three percent of nuclear waste by volume but generate 95 percent of radioactivity.

Currently, some of this high-level waste is reprocessed. The Union of Concerned Scientists describes this: “Reprocessing is a series of chemical operations that separates plutonium and uranium from other nuclear waste contained in the used (or ‘spent’) fuel from nuclear power reactors. The separated plutonium can be used to fuel reactors, but also to make nuclear weapons.”

The United States does not reprocess spent fuel because of concerns that the plutonium could fall into the hands of terrorists. The American method of dealing with high-level wastes is what is called geological burial.

Between 1946 and 1993 more than a dozen countries dumped their radioactive waste in the world’s oceans.

Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP)

Let’s go to New Mexico. Two thousand feet (610 m) below the desert surface there is a vast complex of tunnels and chambers carved out of salt deposits. It’s here that the U.S. military stores its most lethal nuclear waste.

According to the BBC, “This waste will remain lethal longer than the 300,000 years Homo sapiens has walked across the surface of the planet . . .

“When the facility is full sometime in the next 10 to 20 years, the caverns will be collapsed and sealed with concrete and soil. The sprawling complex of buildings that currently mark the site will be erased.” The question is how do we let people many generations from now know what’s buried under the desert? Just as we don't speak any languages from 10,000 years ago, our descendants far into the future may not speak any language known today,

The plan was for enormous granite columns to mark the site, with a large earthen berm in the centre. Within a room the following message would be displayed: “This place is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed dead is commemorated here . . . nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.”

This proposal has been shelved and boffins are still trying to decide what kind of warning might keep future people or other species from prying open the deadly vault.

Atomic Priesthood

How to communicate over 300 generations is a puzzle that many people have worked on. One such, was the scientist Thomas Sebeok. In 1981, he proposed establishing an atomic priesthood to carry the message of the danger of nuclear waste beyond civilizations that come and go.

Hanging a “Keep Out” sign on a barbed-wire fence would probably not last a hundred years. Anyway, experts say written messages won’t do the job. Humans have only been writing for 5,500 years and some of the relics that have passed down to us are still baffling.

Only a tiny number of academics understand the poem Beowulf in its original language, and it was written only 1,200 years ago. How likely is it that written English, Urdu, or Arabic will be understood 300,000 years from now?

But religions have endured the rise and fall of empires. So, Professor Sebeok said, “The idea is that each generation should re-input the warning and relay it to the next, with the veiled threat that to ignore the mandate would be tantamount to inviting some sort of supernatural retribution.”

The members of the priesthood, which he described as a self-perpetuating committee, would be physicists, linguists, psychologists, anthropologists, and semioticians (experts in communication through signs).

The criticism was fast and furious, but there was also support for the idea.

Spent fuel contained in canisters.

Spent fuel contained in canisters.

The Ray Cat Solution

This may sound far-fetched, largely because it is far-fetched. In 1984, semiotician Paolo Fabbri and writer Françoise Bastide developed the notion that animals could be bred to give humans early warning about radiation hazards. The Ray Cat Solution was born.

Fabbri and Bastide chose cats in their thought experiment because of their significance through many civilizations and that they and humans have lived together for thousands of years.

The genetically engineered felines would change colour in the presence of radioactivity as a warning to humans to run like blazes. But, which way?

It might work. It’s better than hoping for the best, which seems to be the prevailing approach at present.

Will this sign mean anything to people half a million years from now?

Will this sign mean anything to people half a million years from now?

Bonus Factoids

  • According to an International Atomic Energy Agency survey, only six percent of the world’s population knows that the black and yellow symbol meaning radiation understands its warning.
  • France gets 70.6 % of its electricity from nuclear reactors, more than any other nation. In the United States the number is 19.7%, in the United Kingdom it’s 15.6%, and Canada 14.9%.
  • In 1981, a task force was set up to determine how best to warn future generations about the radiation dangers. The nuclear priesthood and ray cats did not pass muster. The recommendation was to place a large monument on the site with warnings written in every known language. However, about five thousand years ago somebody erected Stonehenge and we still don’t know why.

Sources

  • “Plans for New Reactors Worldwide.” World Nuclear Association, September 2020.
  • “Storage of Nuclear Waste a ‘Global Crisis’: Report.” Phys.org, January 30, 2019.
  • “Radioactive Waste Management.” World Nuclear Association, February 2020.
  • “Nuclear Reprocessing: Dangerous, Dirty, and Expensive.” Union of Concerned Scientists, April 5, 2011.
  • “Ways Studied to Warn the Future of a-Waste Dangers : Environment: Descendants Would Face Radioactive Peril in 10,000 Years. ‘Atomic Priesthood’ Could Pass the Word From Age to Age.” Robert Dvorchak, Associated Press, November 24, 1991.
  • “How to Send a Message 1,000 Years to the Future.” Scott Beauchamp, The Atlantic, February 24, 2015.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor