Nuclear power stations have been churning out radioactive waste for decades. At least 10 new reactors came online last year – making the question of long-term storage all the more pressing. There’s no solution in sight.
In 2016, 10 new nuclear reactors went online – and two more are set to go online in the first half of 2017, according to the 2017 World Nuclear Industry Status Report published Tuesday. Six of these new nuclear power plants are based in China, which now ranks third on the list of the “big five” nuclear generating countries after the United States and France.
The big five make up 70 percent of the world’s nuclear energy, while the US and France account for almost half of global nuclear energy generation.
In this time period, only four reactors were shut down.
As nuclear reactors continue to go online, the question of what to do with nuclear waste becomes all the more pressing – and still hasn’t been answered properly.
In September this year, Germany begins the search to find a final storage solution for nuclear waste. A special commission is to scour the country for a suitable geological site to build a deep repository, where it can bury the toxic legacy of decades of nuclear power production – once and for all.
The government aims to find a site by 2031. But critics are skeptical that it will meet the deadline.
“I think the German government has been paying more attention to the geologists and to the nuclear safety people,” Alavarez, an associate fellow at the US Institute for Policy Studies, told DW.
In the United States, President Donald Trump has been making moves to restart work on a repository at Yucca Mountain, a former nuclear weapons test site in the remote Nevada desert.
Alvarez describes the selection of the site ahead of the 1988 election as the result of a political move by Congress, which scrapped a survey of various locations around the US.
“People went crazy – and it scared all the politicians who were running for election,” Alvarez explains. “So by 1987 when the process was unfolding, Congress just changed the law, and said: ‘We’re going to put it in Yucca Mountain, all you guys are off the hook.'”
He points out that the site was already contaminated from nuclear testing, and that Nevada has just one electoral college vote. But he says geological conditions at Yucca Mountain are far from ideal, and would require large-scale ventilation for at least 100 years to keep the waste cool
Repository plans collapse around the world
“The problem in Finland and Sweden is dead simple,” says Andy Blowers of independent expert group Nuclear Waste Advisory Associates. “You have one type geology, and lots of it – you’ve got very few power stations, and so a defined amount of waste.”
In the United Kingdom, plans for a repository located close to its Sellafield decommissioning and reprocessing site were scrapped following public and scientific consultation.
And in Australia this past summer, the government abandoned plans for an international repository that would take nuclear waste from around the world – due to public opposition.
Wet storage threatens disaster
There is a big difference between wet and dry storage. Nuclear waste has to be cooled in liquid. But if the liquid evaporates, spent fuel quickly heats up – and could result in fires with consequences experts say would dwarf Chernobyl.
When the Fukushima accident occurred in 2011, a pool containing a spent reactor was badly damaged and such an accident briefly arose as a possibility.
In fact, a leak refilled the pool. Without this happy accident, tens of millions of people – perhaps as much at 27 percent of Japan‘s population, according to some experts – would have had to be evacuated.And yet, despite the dangers, countries including France, the UK, Korea and the US are storing nuclear waste in pools well after experts say it should have been put into dry cask storage.
Experts say the most pressing problem is not finding sites for final repositories, but ensuring that intermediate storage is safe – and will continue to be safe for as long as it takes to solve the riddle of how to get rid of humankind’s most
Read more and watch the video at Nuclear waste: Where to store it for eternity?