Nuclear waste storage

Due to the current climate crisis we need reliable forms of energy which do not produce carbon dioxide. Nuclear energy is currently one of the most promising forms of clean energy, it, currently 10% of the world energy is produced from nuclear energy[1]. However, many people are concerned about nuclear energy due to its tendency to cause large scale disasters and the dangerous waste materials which it produces. In this blog post I will focus on current technologies for treating nuclear waste, explaining how they convert dangerous waste into an easily and safely stored material.

Image of a nuclear reactor releasing steam as it creates heat to generate energy and image of drums used to store radioactive waste

First of all, what is nuclear waste and why is it harmful? Nuclear power plants create energy by splitting large atoms such as uranium into smaller atoms, which leads to the production of heat. Many of the smaller atoms which are created by this process are unstable and decay into more stable forms, releasing harmful radiation as they do so. This radiation can penetrate through most materials and can cause cancer as well as other forms of sickness in both people and animals[2].

One of the main methods of storing harmful nuclear waste is by vitrifying the waste, which means using the harmful outputs to create glass[3]. Which raises the question: what is a glass on a chemical level? Glass is a non-crystalline solid, which means that within glass atoms do not follow a fixed structure but instead are bonded together in a seemingly random fashion [4]. This type of structure is excellent for the storage of waste as it allows for individual atoms to be trapped within the material. Furthermore, glass is less susceptible to damage from nuclear radiation then most other materials, this means that the waste can be safely stored for a prolonged period of time [5]. Once formed this glass can then be stored in a safe location, for example, there are nuclear waste storage facilities in rocksalt mines in Germany. Mines are ideal for the storage of waste as they can contain a large well connected and documented set of caves, which are sufficiently far below ground that minimal damage would occur if there ever was a waste leakage.

Image of a step in the process of vitrification

Vitrification of nuclear waste was first carried out in France in 1957 and it was decided at that time to be the safest method for waste storage. Since then several other countries such as the UK, Japan, Germany, Russia, the USA and India have all embraced vitrification as a safe and sustainable way to store nuclear waste.

So, what can you do? Well the first thing is that if you live close to a nuclear waste storage plant, hopefully, you can sleep more soundly after reading this article. Secondly, you can inform more people about how the process of nuclear waste storage works so that a greater number of people can feel more comfortable with nuclear energy. While nuclear energy is by no means an ideal solution to the climate crisis, it can form part of the solution, especially in the medium term while completely renewable forms of energy are being improved sufficiently to become completely reliable.

[1] https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-power-in-the-world-today.aspx

[2] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/nuclear-energy/

[3] https://mo-sci.com/vitrification-nuclear-waste-management/

[4]  http://www.chemistryexplained.com/Ge-Hy/Glass.html

[5] C. M. Jantzen, K. G. Brown, and J. B. Pickett, “Durable Glass for Thousands of Years,” Int. J. Appl. Glas. Sci., vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 38–62, Mar. 2010, doi: 10.1111/j.2041-1294.2010.00007.x.

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