Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, we are still left with nuclear waste from the arms race. Nuclear waste is highly poisonous and can remain like that for 100,000 years. As we learned after the disasterous 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl, the results of not handling nuclear waste properly can be devastating. The disposal of nuclear waste is clearly a reason for concern, so how can we ensure that it will remain undisturbed for these extended periods of time? Scientists have proposed a number of solutions, though each has drawbacks.
In order to understand how important nuclear waste management is, we need to realize the dangers of mismanagement. Low doses of radiation are suspected of causing genetic defects. At Chernobyl, people were exposed to higher doses of radiation, which caused an increase in cancers and genetic mutations. Another problem was the long-term exposure to radiation since these nuclear substances were dispersed in an extremely large area. (The accident contaminated 125,000 square miles in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.) The death toll from the accident is controversial but a 2006 Greenpeace report estimates that “the full consequences of the Chernobyl disaster could top a quarter million cancer cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers.” If nuclear waste is not managed properly, this could happen again.
Nuclear waste that needs disposal comes from two sources: nuclear reactors and decommissioned nuclear weapons. These wastes can be classified by their radioactive half life. Low-level waste (objects exposed to radioactive substances including suits, test tubes, an actual nuclear facility or syringes from hospitals) can be stored for a few years and be completely safe. High-level waste (actual nuclear substances) have half-lives of thousands of years and require extremely long-term storage away from human contact. This high-level waste is the most controversial and there is currently no solution for its storage.
One of the most appealing solutions is to shoot the waste into space but there are a number of problems with this idea. If we could get the waste into space, how far away would it need to be? If it remained in orbit around Earth, it could bump into a satellite and potentially fall back to Earth. Furthermore, launching waste into space could be dangerous; if the rocket malfunctioned and exploded, the waste would be dispersed and irreparable damage done. Finally, there’s the issue of the price tag.
Another solution that is slightly less popular is to bury the waste under the tectonic plates in the ocean floor. When buried, the waste would be virtually unreachable, but it would be extremely costly to build machinery that could get to the ocean floor and bury the nuclear substances encased in something that could withstand the extreme pressure of the depth. Another issue is that we do not have encasements that exceed the half-life of the radio-isotopes and when the encasement disintegrates, there could be a negative impact on the ocean.
The most accepted solution for long-term storage is burial inside mountains. The plan is to create long caverns, bury the waste, and then close the caverns. This seems the most feasible option and the government has designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a burial site. There are, however, some drawbacks to this plan as well. The site is only 90 miles from Las Vegas and close to the city’s only water supply, so there is a fear of contamination. Nevertheless, it seems fairly certain that it will be the site for nuclear waste burial.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding nuclear waste management. Though it is one of the largest issues that the world faces (and there does not seem to be a simple answer), action must be taken.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.