Nuclear energy is an incredible discovery unleashing the most powerful potential of tiny little atoms. Unfortunately, the nuclear waste byproduct from power plants and weapons can be very difficult to dispose of. Here are the primary ways to dispose of nuclear waste.
“Deep Storage Underground”
The half-life of certain radioactive isotopes is 500,000 years or more, which makes disposal very challenging. Before the Super Fund Toxic Waste Program was set up, normal industrial waste was dumped into the ocean. But that is just not feasible, wise or sensible with nuclear waste.
The United States has more than one hundred nuclear power plants. Some nuclear facilities will engage in short-term treatment of nuclear waste to make it safer for transport to a long-term storage facility. The short-term treatment processes include ion exchange and Synroc. Vitrification is both a short-term and long-term storage solution.
Vitrification is the modification of a substance into a crystalline or glass form. Nuclear waste in gas or liquid format could leak and cause serious damage. The vitrification of nuclear waste transforms unstable, volatile chemicals into more stable, inert chemical forms. The nuclear waste being encased in multiple layers of glass.
In the 1940s, the plutonium nuclear waste was stored in single-walled steel tanks. When leaks were discovered in 1964, double-walled tanks were used. It can be very dangerous and expensive to try to repair nuclear waste storage tanks underground.
“Water Table Concerns”
Leakage of nuclear fuel into deep underground water aquifers is a serious concern. The geological disposal of nuclear waste is usually done in remote desert areas under mountains with deep tunnels to reach the tanks. Record keeping is very important to document the contents of the disposal sites.
Besides being water-proof, deep underground storage tanks must also be earthquake-resistant. The tanks should not rust, deteriorate or puncture easily.
The ideal goal of spent nuclear fuel disposal is the chemical process of “transmutation” or converting dangerous fissionable chemicals to more inert chemicals. These safer useful components can then be re-used.
The final disposal concept has never been used and is the most controversial: Disposing of Radioactive Waste in Outer Space. Simply placing a small amount into a space shuttle would be very expensive. The dangers of an explosion or debris falling to earth are too serious to allow for this disposal method. One accident could irradiate the entire earth.