Nuclear Waste: Possible New Solutions on the Horizon

by Kerstin Muth, member Environment North

Around the world nuclear waste is piling up. Countries that produce electricity from nuclear power are trying to find an environmentally and socially acceptable solution for the spent fuel. Currently, there is no final disposal site for this high-level nuclear waste in use. Finland is in the lead in this slow race. They have constructed their deep geological disposal site next to one of their nuclear power generating facilities. Posiva, the Finnish nuclear waste management organisation, is scheduled to apply for an operating licence from the government this year.

Placing the nuclear waste in deep geological disposal sites is generally the favoured concept of the nuclear industry. Their claim is that the multiple barrier method of ceramic pellets, stainless steel, copper and bentonite, will keep any dangerous radioactivity from being released into the environment for about 250,000 years.

And yet uncertainty remains whether it is safe enough.  Dr. Paul Dorfman, founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group, states that “The bitter reality is that there is no scientifically proven way of disposing of the existential problem of high- and intermediate-level waste. Some countries have built repositories, some plan them. But given the huge technical uncertainties, if disposal does go ahead and anything goes wrong underground in the next millennia, then future generations risk profound widespread pollution.” (click here for source)

Recently a study published in Nature Materials showed that used fuel containers may degrade faster than previously thought. The corrosion is accelerated by the interface interaction between different barrier materials. Xiaolei Guo, the lead author and deputy director of Ohio State University’s Center for Performance and Design of Nuclear Waste Forms and Containers, states that “this indicates that the current models may not be sufficient to keep this waste safely stored...” (click here for the article)

Currently nuclear waste in Canada, and in most other countries, is stored at the nuclear reactor sites. There it can be monitored and stored safely for the time being. Possible ways of treating the waste which could reduce the radioactivity from hundreds of thousands of years to only hundreds of years, as well as avoiding production of material which can be used for nuclear weapons, are being investigated. Research includes:

  1. various fast reactor designs     (to read the article A fast reactor system to shorten the lifetime of long-lived fission products click here),
  2. a small lead-cooled reactor     (to read the article Maximum efficiency nuclear waste transmutation click here),
  3. and perhaps the most novel method - using lasers.     Dr. Gérard Moreau and his former student Canadian physicist Dr. Donna Strickland were recipients of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. They developed a laser technology known as chirped pulse amplification. This technology has resulted in several advancements in cancer treatment, laser eye surgery and others. Near the end of his acceptance speech, Dr. Moreau talks about using this type of laser to reduce the toxicity of nuclear waste. While this technology is not close to being available for industrial purposes, Dr. Moreau and two Lithuanian companies have developed such a laser at a laboratory in Hungary. (For Gérard Moreau's 2018 Nobel lecture in Physics with discussion of nuclear waste which begins a minute 35 is available by click here.) (For the article on the laser in Hungary click here.)

There is no immediate hurry to transport this high-level nuclear waste long distances and bury it deep in the ground with uncertain consequences. A much better option may be developed.