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Global Problem of Radioactive Waste

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In our modern society, the field of nuclear technology has made a plethora of advancements. Nuclear technology is looked upon as a crucial source in areas such as medicine, energy production, and national defense. Although it is considered one of the greatest developments in technology, it comes with a negative consequence and burden. The problem that arises with nuclear technology is radioactive waste. Radioactive waste could be defined as waste that contains highly toxic and dangerous chemical elements. It is a byproduct that results from the use and formation of nuclear materials; this can originate from nuclear reactors, fuel processing plants, research facilities and hospitals. It is also produced while dismantling nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities. Nuclear power plants are systems that generate loads of nuclear waste. The different levels of waste that come about from nuclear power plants not only effect humans, but also the environment. For this reason, there is controversy surrounding the topic of which disposal method is the most effective and safe. This ongoing debate exhibits the future standpoints on ideal methods for nuclear waste disposal.

For many power plants, a turbine must be spun to produce electricity. Fuel from resources such as coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear energy are used to create steam from water. That same steam is then used to turn the turbine. This differs from nuclear plants because the burning process is not necessary when forming steam. Instead, nuclear plants “split uranium atoms in a process called fission.” With this approach, nuclear power plants do not allow for pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur oxides to escape into the air. However, other energy sources tend to do so. Nuclear reactors are built in a certain way in which they can endure a continuing chain reaction of fission. They are filled with solid uranium fuel and surrounded by water, which assists the process. As the reactor begins, uranium atoms will split; this will allow for the release of neutrons and heat. Those neutrons will bump into other uranium atoms, causing them to split and continue the procedure; this will produce more neutrons and heat. This heat is utilized to make the steam that will spin a turbine, which allows for a generator to make electricity. After producing electricity, the fuel removed from the reactor becomes waste. This type of waste is known as high-level waste.

There are three levels of radioactive wastes: low-level, intermediate-level, and high-level. Low-level wastes include factory items such as mops, clothing, paper towels, and floor sweepings. These items are usually contaminated with minimum levels of radioactivity through cleanup and other maintenance related duties at nuclear generating stations. Low-level waste contains short-lived radioactivity for the most part and can be dealt with safely. Intermediate-level wastes essentially include used reactor core elements and filters used to cleanse reactor water systems. It is more highly radioactive. High-level radioactive wastes are produced because of reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors; it is fundamentally the used nuclear fuel. When these fuels are taken out from the reactor, they are highly radioactive. They also contain long-lived radioactivity and produce extreme amounts of heat. It is important that high-level waste be dealt with carefully over a long term.

The different levels of nuclear waste can leave a detrimental impact on humans and the environment. Exposure to radiation generally affect the future generations as it causes birth and developmental disabilities. For example, some issues caused by radiation include down syndrome and thyroid cancer. Wildlife are also affected by exposure to radioactivity. A few problems that arise for animals include reduced brain sizes, physical deformities, and other matters that jeopardize their survival. Plant life also face damage due to nuclear radioactive waste. Radioactive soils and plants prevent creatures from fertilizing and assisting the growth of certain plants. This also creates a consequence for future generations. Furthermore, nuclear workers can face severely harmful fates when working around nuclear substances. Although it is rare, accidents leading to people’s demise can occur from nuclear reactors. This can happen due to exposure to radiation while research or testing stages.

An example of an incident in which radioactive exposure severely affected individuals and the environment was the Chernobyl disaster. This took place on April 25-26, 1986, when technicians tried to test a flawed experiment. Several mistakes were made by these technicians including the fact that they shut down the reactor’s power-regulating system and the emergency safety system. Not only that, but they took out most of the control rods from its core while allowing the reactor to continue running at seven percent power. “The chain reaction in the core went out of control. Several explosions triggered a large fireball and blew off the heavy steel and concrete lid of the reactor. This and the ensuing fire in the graphite reactor core released large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, where it was carried great distances by air currents. A partial meltdown of the core also occurred.” Improper storage or disposal of waste at a nuclear location can also result in levels of exposure that are beyond what humans and the environment can withstand.

Depending on the waste’s origin, the radioactivity can last for a couple of hours to hundreds of thousands of years. If disposed of without caution and care, radioactive waste could destroy the environment by decaying the air, water, and soil quality. These toxic substances can also leave a fatal long-term impact on human and animal life. Hence, it is highly important that nuclear waste be disposed of properly. Fortunately, the amount of radioactive substance that comes from nuclear power plants is much smaller than waste that arises by other processes of generating energy. One type of disposal method is known as incineration. In this method, radioactive waste is burned mostly through commercially-operated incinerators. Specific large companies also use this method through their own use of operations.

This type of method is done in regards with low level waste because the substance usually includes items that have solely been contaminated. Over a long period of time, the radioactivity of nuclear substances eventually decays. Thus, storing it until the radioactivity is completely gone is used as another technique to deal with waste disposal. This method generally depends on the substance’s radioactivity level and the amount of substance. Storage is mostly done with waste that has a short half-life.

Another approach to disposing radioactive waste is called deep burial. This is a common way of getting rid of high-level waste using deep burial pits. This method is also known as geological disposal and is used amongst countries with natural resources. In this process, the waste is buried deep within the earth. Laboratories are created underground to observe and keep track of the materials. For nuclear sites, a frequent means of storing material is in water. There are ponds or special pools in which fuel that was previously used for producing power is stored in. Some radioactive wastes, on the other hand, are not disposed of. Instead, they are recycled because they may contain elements that may be helpful for something else. For example, used fuel contain elements that can be extracted for other purposes. Also, since uranium and plutonium elements have long lives they can be separated and reused as well.

Another means of disposal is to place the waste into the ocean. The reason this method was used was because sometimes when waste is reprocessed to obtain useable elements, liquid waste comes out. This method is highly supervised, and the radiation levels are supposedly very low that they are essentially insignificant. However, this method has been phased out because of an agreement between companies that rely on nuclear materials. An alternative method that hasn’t been seriously considered is called space disposal. The positive effects are said to not be sufficient enough for the expense.

Radioactive waste can be highly toxic and pose as a threat to the environment, living creatures, and humans. Although low-level waste is being properly disposed of, high level waste still has its issues that need to be addressed. High-level waste is oftentimes being stored at temporary locations and is waiting to be transported for disposal at permanent locations. However, there are technically no permanent facilities. There are already tons of waste stocked, yet more is being made which is pushing the capacity limit for storage. Nuclear energy is essential in energy production; the energy production will continue because it necessary for future energy in the U.S. Those who support nuclear energy agree on the idea that ideal ways to dispose of radioactive waste are not yet achievable. There needs to be a solution on how to regard the storage, monitor it, and manage the waste in an effective and safe manner. The longer it takes to find a solution on how to properly dispose of waster from nuclear energy, the more high-level waste will be created from electricity production. Until the problem is solved, the waste will simply decay and will go down from generation to generation for a plethora of years.

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