Nuclear Waste Essay, Research Paper
Nuclear waste is one of the most pressing and provocative
environmental issues of our time. This radioactive waste, which
remains deadly for thousands of years, is incredibly difficult to
deal with. Unfortunately, time is running short for a solution, as
a growing number of reactors, (111 in the United States alone),
radioactive remnants of Cold War weapons, and increasing medical
uses of radioactivity will soon create enough waste to exceed the
current holding capacity for radioactive materials.
There are two types of nuclear waste. The first is low-level
radioactive waste, which contains small amounts of radioactivity.
This sort of waste usually comes from medical facilities and
pharmaceutical companies and includes clothing, test tubes, and all
kinds of diagnostic waste. The other kind, which is of most
concern, is high-level radioactive waste, which is created when
reactor fuel is mined and processed and when atoms are split in
reactors. This “hot” waste includes spent uranium fuel rods and
the liquid waste produced when those rods are dissolved in acid to
make plutonium for nuclear weapons.
Disposing of low-level waste presents difficulties, but not
insurmountable ones. As of now, it is shipped to special disposal
sites in the United States. Expectedly, the public is not pleased
to have any type of radioactive waste in their own backyards, even
the relatively harmless low-level trash. The main obstacle in
dealing with this type is to educate the public, which tends to
equate anything radioactive with that of the highly dangerous,
nuclear fuel cycle variety. Without good information, the people
will always fear anything remotely connected with nuclear power and
will continue to incorrectly liken what goes on in an X-ray
laboratory with what goes on in a plutonium bomb.
Of far more concern is how to dispose of the high-level
radioactive waste. This problem has plagued scientists and
politicians since the beginning of the nuclear age. “Hot” waste
contaminates the earth, the water, the air, and even minute amounts
of it can be extremely poisonous to humans. Short of abolishing
nuclear waste altogether, it looks like there is little that can be
done about the growing accumulation of nuclear waste. Scientists
are doing what they can to deal with the problem, although the
solutions are admittedly not long-term ones.
Currently, “hot” waste is stored near the reactors and weapons
plants that make it. Used fuel rods are kept in pools of
circulating water and liquid waste in steel tanks that are buried
below the ground. Some of the less radioactive liquid waste is
mixed with concrete and made into blocks, which are buried under
clay and planted over. Wastes have sometimes been encased in metal
drums lined with concrete and dumped into the sea, at times dumped
without any packaging at all. A few countries recycle the fuel to
recover plutonium, which can be used as reactor fuel.
Each of these methods has drawbacks. Drums have leaked and
contaminated surrounding land. Storing fuel rods in pools is only
a temporary measure, and the pumps and filters required can
malfunction. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions can damage buried
drums, break the concrete, and release radioactive material into
the soil and groundwater. This groundwater can also serve to free
wastes by corroding metal containers of nuclear waste, mixing with
it and leaching into soil and streams. Recycling waste for
plutonium is costly, complex, and still leaves behind waste. Worse
still, large-scale recycling could lead to trade in plutonium,
which can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The question of how to deal with nuclear waste is an extremely
difficult one, but it must be dealt with. Certainly, nuclear waste
must be disposed of somewhere, and the longer we wait, the more
formidable the task becomes. What is needed is more study on how
radioactive elements behave, hopefully enough to solve this most
urgent environmental problem.