Nuclear waste is a huge issue and it’s not going away any time soon–in fact, it’s not going away for millions of years. While most types of nuclear waste remain radioactive for mere tens of thousands of years, the half-life of Chlorine-36 is 300,000 years and neptunium-237 boasts a half-life of a whopping 2 million years.
All this radioactivity amounts to a huge amount of maintenance to ensure that our radioactive waste is being properly managed throughout its extraordinarily long shelf life and isn’t endangering anyone. And, it almost goes without saying, all this maintenance comes at a cost. In the United States, nuclear waste carries a particularly hefty cost.
Last year, in a hard-hitting expose on the nuclear industry’s toll on U.S. taxpayers, the Los Angeles Times reported that “almost 40 years after Congress decided the United States, and not private companies, would be responsible for storing radioactive waste, the cost of that effort has grown to $7.5 billion, and it’s about to get even pricier.”
How much pricier? A lot. “With no place of its own to keep the waste, the government now says it expects to pay $35.5 billion to private companies as more and more nuclear plants shut down, unable to compete with cheaper natural gas and renewable energy sources. Storing spent fuel at an operating plant with staff and technology on hand can cost $300,000 a year. The price for a closed facility: more than $8 million, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.”
With the United States as a poster child of what not to do with your nuclear waste, the United Kingdom is taking a much different tack. The UK is currently undertaking what the country’s Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) department says “will be one of the UK’s largest ever environmental projects.” This nuclear waste storage solution comes in the form of a geological disposal facility (GDF), a waste disposal method that involves burying nuclear waste deep, deep underground in a cocoon of backfill, most commonly comprised of bentonite-based cement. This type of cement is able to absorb shocks and is ideal for containing radioactive particles in case of any failure. The GDF system would also be at such a depth that it would be under the water table, minimizing any risk of contaminating the groundwater.
According to reporting from Engineering & Technology, nuclear waste is a mounting issue in Europe and in the UK in particular. “Under European law, all countries that create radioactive waste are obliged to find their own disposal solutions – shipping nuclear waste is not generally permitted except in some legacy agreements. However, when the first countries charged into nuclear energy generation (or nuclear weapons research), disposal of the radioactive waste was not a major consideration. For several of those countries, like the UK, that is now around 70 years ago, and the waste has been ‘stored’ rather than disposed of. It remains a problem.”
In fact, not only does it remain a problem, it is a mounting problem. As nuclear waste has been improperly or shortsightedly managed in the past, the current administration can no longer avoid dealing with the issue. In the past the UK used its Drigg Low-Level Waste Repository on the Cumbrian Coast to treat low and intermediate level waste, but now, thanks to coastal erosion, the facility will soon begin leeching radioactive materials into the sea, although that might not be quite as scary as it sounds.
“Back in 2014, the Environment Agency raised concerns that coastal erosion could result in leakage from the site within 100 to 1,000 years, although it was counter-claimed that the levels of radioactivity after such a time would be low enough to be harmless,” Engineering & Technology writes. “This would definitely not be the case for high-level wastes, where radioactivity could remain a hazard into and beyond the next ice age, hence the need for longer-term disposal.”
Where exactly will that longer-term disposal be based? That’s up for debate. And it won’t be an easy thing to decide, as the RWM says that they will need a community to volunteer to be involved in such a costly, lengthy, and potentially unpopular project. And it’s not just an issue for the current inhabitants of potential locations in the UK, but for many generations to come over the next tens of thousands of years of radioactivity.