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The Process of Nuclear Waste Disposal

Waste management infrastructure for nuclear power plants is crucial due to the production of deadly waste by reactors if mismanaged.

Nuclear power is a beneficial source of efficient and clean energy, but its radioactive waste must be managed properly to prevent harm.

Nuclear power plants mainly generate lower and intermediate levels of radioactive waste during routine maintenance. However, the burning of uranium fuel produces high-level waste, which is extremely hazardous.

High-level waste (HLW) emits lethal radiation doses if exposed directly for short periods, necessitating specific disposal protocols.
Lower and intermediate levels of radioactive waste are less harmful but still require proper disposal for safety.

Disposal Procedures

Lower-level radioactive waste consists of contaminated equipment like clothing, mops, and tools from nuclear power plants. It does not need shielding during handling and transport and can be disposed of near the surface.

On the other hand, intermediate-level waste (ILW), which includes outer jackets of fuel rods, requires some shielding. Therefore, smaller non-solid waste is solidified in concrete or bitumen before disposal.

For some ILW, near-surface repositories are inadequate and require a deeper deposit similar to high-level waste.
Geological deposits with multiple barriers are widely considered the most effective method for managing HLW.

This method involves encasing waste in an insoluble material, like borosilicate glass, and sealing it in a corrosion-resistant material such as stainless steel. The waste is then isolated deep underground in a stable rock structure to protect people and the environment. Containers in wet repositories are surrounded by impermeable backfill to prevent radiation migration.

Yucca Mountain is the U.S. Department of Energy's potential geologic repository designed to store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. (Maxim Kniazkov/Getty Images )
Yucca Mountain is the U.S. Department of Energy’s potential geologic repository designed to store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. (Maxim Kniazkov/Getty Images )

Storage and Pre-burial Procedures

Cooling is essential before burying high-level waste due to its radioactive nature, causing temperature increases. Spent fuel from nuclear reactors is initially stored in thick reinforced concrete ponds with steel liners providing water coverage for shielding and cooling.

After five years for cooling, some fuel is moved to dry casks or concrete shielding without air circulation. Fuel rods may be stored in sealed steel casks or canisters with low-reactivity gas for transportation and disposal.

The used fuel is stored in ventilated units made of concrete and steel above or below ground. This approach ensures retrievability while managing the waste.

Reprocessing Spent Fuel

High-level waste can be separated from reprocessed spent fuel without concerns about retrievability. Reprocessing used fuel involves converting uranium and plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) for reactor fuel.

Reprocessing uranium and plutonium into MOX provides about 25 to 30 percent more energy from the original uranium ore and reduces HLW volume by 85 percent.
After recycling, the remaining waste consists of fission products that decrease radiation levels in a shorter time compared to plutonium and uranium. The recycled HLW decays in 9,000 years to the radiation level of the original ore, improving waste disposal.

Moreover, since the remaining HLW is not reusable, it can be disposed of without concern for future retrieval.

A general view of the Golfech nuclear power station in southern France, on Jan. 22, 2024. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)
A general view of the Golfech nuclear power station in southern France, on Jan. 22, 2024. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Real-World Examples of Nuclear Waste Management

France is a leading nuclear energy producer with roughly 70 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear power reactors. The country focuses on recycling spent fuel as part of its waste management strategy.

France’s approach to waste management improves efficiency, fuel security, and reduces high-level radioactive waste. However, only 10 percent of France’s nuclear electricity is generated using MOX.

Recycling spent fuel involves costly reprocessing and MOX manufacturing plants.

In Japan, the cost of the Rokkasho Reprocessing plant has escalated to approximately AU$29 billion (US$19 billion). 

Furthermore, standardized spent fuel and waste management is more straightforward in France due to its uniform reactor design. Varied reactor types could complicate waste management.

Conversely, the United States does not reprocess spent fuel.
The USA is the largest producer of nuclear power globally, generating 30 percent of the world’s nuclear electricity. However, only 18 percent of the United States’ electricity is derived from nuclear power.

Australia and Nuclear Power

In contrast to the US and France, Australia prohibited nuclear power in 1998 through Senate legislation.

However, Australia holds the largest uranium reserves globally, and nuclear power plays a critical role in the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Additionally, Australia operates a nuclear reactor in Lucas Heights, Sydney, for academic and medical purposes.

Australia is also preparing its workforce for the operation of nuclear submarines under the AUKUS agreement.

Despite several attempts to lift the ban, it remains in place.

However, Opposition leader Peter Dutton is proposing to

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