This is a series around POWER, a Motherboard 360/VR documentary about nuclear energy. Follow along here.
In 1945, when the physicist Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first detonation of a nuclear bomb he'd been instrumental in creating, he misquoted the Bhagavad Gita and said: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Presumably, Oppenheimer was referring to the destructive potential of the most powerful weapon ever created, but his observation also applies to nuclear power more generally. Originally developed for military purposes, by the 1950s nuclear fission was also being used to generate energy for civilian use.
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There's a lot to be said in favor of using nuclear energy over fossil fuels, but for all its virtues, nuclear power poses one glaring problem: what to do with its waste products. Spent nuclear fuel, most of it from manufacturing atomic weapons, is piling up at reactors across the United States and in other countries, like Canada. This waste can remain toxic for tens of thousands of years, which requires unprecedented engineering solutions when it comes to figuring out how to store the stuff.
Over the past half-century or so, there's been no shortage of ideas about what to do with radioactive material. As might be expected, some are far more idiotic than others. Since we've yet to come to an agreement as to the best way to store our nuclear waste, we've compiled a handy guide describing the best and worst nuclear storage methods.
STORING NUCLEAR WASTE AT A NUCLEAR REACTOR
At the moment, this is the go-to plan when it comes storing nuclear waste, which sucks because it isn't really a plan at all. Getting government approval and then actually digging a deep geological repository (perhaps the best solution in the long term) is a decades-long process with no guarantee of success.
At the moment, the US only has one underground repository. The vast majority of its low- and mid-level waste is just sitting around in containers at the nuclear reactors where it was produced.
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High-level nuclear waste is kept in giant pools of water for a decade to allow it to cool off before being transferred to dry containers for storage. While these strategies work fine for the short-term, nuclear reactors are vulnerable to terror attacks, meltdowns, and natural disasters. The presence of nuclear waste on-site would only compound the fallout from these events.
BURYING NUCLEAR WASTE NEAR OR AT THE SURFACE
While storing nuclear waste in specially designed containers at reactors isn't great, it beats the hell out of one previous plan for high-level nuclear waste disposal, which was to basically just toss the stuff into a ditch. While it's hard to believe that anyone could've ever thought this was a good idea, during a 2004 cleanup at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state, some workers happened upon a safe in a ditch. Inside this safe was a glass bottle. Inside the glass bottle was a white gloop dating back to 1944. That gloop was weapons-grade plutonium, which will remain toxic for 24,000 more years. Nice.
That being said, storing low-level nuclear waste at or near the surface has been okayed in many countries, including the US, UK, Netherlands and Japan.
Mr. Burns' technique for disposing of nuclear waste isn't the dumbest idea we've seen. Video: YouTube
GIVE ALL THE NUCLEAR WASTE TO AUSTRALIA
The world's largest trailer park, sometimes called Australia, is known for many things, including poor decision making, kangaroos, and the fact that 70 percent of the country is desert. While much of the Australian outback might not be good for hosting (human) life, it could be a great place to dump the world's nuclear waste.
Although this hasn't happened yet, based on the reports from a 2016 royal commission in Australia, creating a nuclear storage facility for the world's nuclear waste could bring in some $50 billion for the country.
MAKE PEOPLE EAT IT
Although no one is seriously advancing this as a nuclear waste storage solution, the US government was covertly feeding cereal with radioactive tracers to "mentally feeble" children that had joined the MIT's "Science Club" for a few years during the 1940s to see how it would affect them. Of course, they didn't have the consent of the kids or their families. (Much later, subjects received some compensation for the experiments.)
USING NUCLEAR WASTE TO BUILD A BORDER WALL
Speaking of greatness, Donald Trump wants to build a great wall along the southern US border, and the Department of Homeland Security recently put out a call for design proposals. A contracting company called Clayton Industries submitted one idea that called for digging a trench and filling it with nuclear waste. While exposure to this deadly material would undoubtedly be a strong deterrent for many immigrants, it's unlikely that any of the 12 million people along the border on the US side would be gung-ho about living next to a moat filled with nuclear waste.
LAUNCHING NUCLEAR WASTE INTO THE SUN
How about launching it into the Sun, which is, after all, just a giant sustained nuclear reaction? While this idea gets a lot of coverage in the press, it's not going to work until we can figure out how to get rockets into space without them exploding (nuclear rain, anybody?). NASA has a pretty good track record in this department, but just a single fuck up could put millions of people at risk. So for now this idea has been tabled by most nuclear scientists.
DROPPING NUCLEAR WASTE INTO VOLCANOES
Amazingly, volcanoes aren't hot enough to melt the zirconium encasing uranium fuel rods, much less the fuel itself. Moreover, because lava is pushing upwards, the rods probably wouldn't sink into a volcano, they'd just be pushed to the surface, turning the lava flow into a radioactive hellscape. No thanks.
DUMPING NUCLEAR WASTE INTO THE OCEAN
I feel as though I probably don't have to explain to you why dumping the most toxic materials on Earth into the source of all life is a bad idea. But I sure wish someone would have told this to the 13 countries that used the ocean as a dumping ground for nuclear waste from 1946 until 1993, when the practice was finally banned by international treaties. Following the ban, a number of studies were carried out at various disposal sites and the environmental impact was found to be almost non-existent. How this has changed in the last 20 years is uncertain, and whether these containers will last for 10,000 years or more even less so.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, one of the only operational deep geological repositories in the world, is located in a giant salt deposit in New Mexico. Salt deposits have long been considered an ideal place to store nuclear waste due to their stability, ability to contain heat released by radioactive materials, and—in the case of WIPP—a total lack of water flow in the region.
In the 1970s, Germany began converting two old salt mines into storage sites for its radioactive waste. One of these, Asse II, was filled with nuclear waste until 1995, and then filled with salt until 2004. In 2008, it was found that brine near the site contained radioactive elements, suggesting that the mine was leaking its waste contents due to the movement of brine. A study predicted that the flooding of the mine would increase in the future, leading to uncontrollable water that could potentially carry the nuclear waste with it.
In recent years, the German government has begun work of digging the mine out again to retrieve and relocate the waste. While planned nuclear waste repositories in salt deposits like WIPP are working just fine, Asse II wasn't designed to hold nuclear waste.
In the 1970s, the first proposals began to emerge for digging narrow boreholes several miles into the Earth, and then dropping spent nuclear fuel rods into them. Last year, the US Department of Energy axed the plans for the first experimental borehole to test the concept, which would've been drilled three miles into the Earth outside of Rugby, North Dakota. Although no nuclear waste would've actually be put into the hole, the plan was killed after protests from local residents who feared it would lead to the actual disposal of nuclear waste in the area.
DEEP GEOLOGICAL REPOSITORIES
Finally, there is the deep geological repository, the only realistic plan for the long term storage of nuclear waste at the moment. As the name suggests, DGRs involve burying the nuclear waste in vast networks of tunnels about a half of a mile beneath the Earth's surface, and then backfilling these tunnels with concrete, salt and other materials.
These repositories, such as WIPP in New Mexico or the planned repository at Onkalo in Finland, are designed to last for tens of thousands of years without leaking. Although the plan is far from perfect (as a 2014 leak at WIPP goes to show), it's the best we've got for figuring out a way to handle the approximately 250,000 tons of nuclear waste that has been generated around the globe.
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