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Discussion > Is Burying Radio-active Waste The Best Way To Deal With The Problem?

Over on Unthreaded stewgreen commented on the disposal of radio-active waste

- OK with nuclear you have the cost of nuclear disposal but if you stick it in a box underground away from earthquakes then it's never really gonna do much harm. It's only when people come up with crazy plans about it that costs go out of control ..I think ?

As it's something that has interested me , I commented thus:


stewgreen
I find the opposition to "Sticking nuclear waste in a hole in the ground" quite interesting. Nature puts the source material in a hole in the ground just where it chooses, it also creates natural nuclear reactors, Oklo Mine, Gabon. Yet when it is suggested as a solution, putting nuclear waste back in a hole seems a worse crime than taking it out of the ground and using it to benefit people

Alan Kendall commented

SandyS. There are some legitimate concerns about nuclear waste disposal, yet if the appropriate geological setting is chosen, with the other barriers in place, no unintended leakage would occur. Disposal sites proposed for the UK are inadequate. The best site is probably close to where I live, near Thetford. Or, with less confidence, offshore Dorset.

If you wish to pursue this topic I would be happy to contribute. It was a subject I persued both in my research and teaching. I have no feeling about the range of opinion there might be in BH.

I too have no idea what the range of feelings at BH is so after a bit of thought I decided to take up Alan's offer and create a thread. It may end up as a very brief two-way conversation, but hopefully it'll provide a change from BBC and EU bashing enjoyable though that is.

May 3, 2016 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Alan Kendall,
My first question is why Tilbury? Why not in the Sandstone in Caithness and Orkney which is about 400 million years old and pretty stable, or the granite of the Cairngorms which is already radio-active?

May 3, 2016 at 9:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

SandyS. Tilbury? I think you may have caused panic in that Essex port. Let's defer discussing Thetford for the moment.

The main problem with storing nuclear waste is to prevent contamination of groundwaters that may reach the biosphere. The Caithness sandstones and, to a lesser extent, granites, are full of fractures that allow the passage of groundwater. Nuclear wastes emit heat that gets transferred to grounwaters giving them buoyancy. Rising groundwaters may carry small amounts of radiation that can then reach the surface. Fractured rocks are therefore not recommended.

The main problem with waste disposal is not the geology of a well sited repository. It's the politics. People don't want waste repository sites near them. We have nuclear waste that we need to store safely. I would suggest that BH contributors would find discussing this problem to be of more interest.

I'm always willing to strut my geological stuff if asked.

May 3, 2016 at 9:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

Burying nuclear waste means you are giving relatively easy access to plutonium to *all* future generations.

[Unless you extract it and consume it before burying the rest of the filth of course.]

May 3, 2016 at 10:11 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Martin A. You open up two significant subthreads here
1. Future access to dangerous materials, and
2. Should we reprocess?
Let's give others a chance to comment on (2).

Regarding access, one of the main advantages of geological burial is that it removes potentially dangerous materials out of the reach of terrorists. Those who would do us harm would have to negotiate at least a kilometre down a shaft, travel to the repository itself, remove the concrete and bentonite barrier, then breach into the stainless steel containers. Then the boron glass containing the waste would have to be manhandled back to and up the shaft. How long would that take? How long would it take to mobilize the military to neutralize the situation? Meanwhile, if it was high level waste that was being stolen, the thieves would be subjected to hours of radiation. If they even reached the surface, they would in all probability be in a poor state, healthwise.

Some counties, like Canada, demand continued accessibility to the waste, believing it may have future value, or because a better disposal method may developed in the future. However, it is possible to select a geological site where movement of the surrounding rock (salt or thick plastic clays) would seal off the waste for ever, giving no one access.

Bury the stuff, good and deep, and treat it like Fort Knox.

May 3, 2016 at 11:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

If the waste is still thermally active it could be used for RTGs and a deep space network. Such a network has been envisioned for things like a Mars colony or for asteroid mining. Network nodes could be parts stores, network relays, fuel dumps etc. Even oxygen. The RTGs would provide power without solar panels and be less prone to space weather and position I.e bring oriented to the Sun.

Might be hard to get it done but it could be an option. I worked on a possible UK led RTG program.

May 3, 2016 at 12:21 PM | Registered CommenterMicky H Corbett

MickyHCorbett. You perhaps would like to live beneath the flight path of a high-level waste carrying rocket? Count me out.

May 3, 2016 at 12:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

When I say " relatively easy access to plutonium" I mean that a future nation - 1000 years from now, say - with a waste repository on its territory, could mine the plutonium.

"Bury the stuff, good and deep, and treat it like Fort Knox"

I'm not sure that treating it like Fort Knox is feasible even today. And impossible to be sure that it would retain that level of security for - how long? - longer than existing human history?

May 3, 2016 at 12:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan

In his book 'Merchants of Despair' Robert Zubrin advocated dropping the SS encased waste into some of the deep ocean trenches where the bottom is thick silt and which would quickly transport the waste deep inside.
A sensible idea to me is that we spend more time investigating this and instead utilise the fossil fuels that we have literally coming out of our ears, we also have upwards of 200,000 years of Thorium to work towards.

May 3, 2016 at 1:32 PM | Registered CommenterDung

At school in the 70s, nuclear power was the way forward. In 1979 'Three Mile Island' happened. Out of curiosity, I just looked it up on Wikipedia, but knowing how such a source of information is liable to politicised rewrites, I realise that I don't trust any info about nuclear accidents.

France has (?) run a successful nuclear power program without blowing up. Hasn't it?

I am pro nuclear power. I do appreciate the risks of nuclear material, used or not, falling into the wrong hands.

Some 'prominent Greens' have now realised nuclear may be the best option due to CO2, but what percentage of the high costs have been generated by wild and unsubstantiated claims by Greens/CND?

How high on the dangerous nuclear contamination scale, does background Radon score in South West England?

Use it, and bury it.

May 3, 2016 at 1:37 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Dung. Unfortunately internationally mandated rules against any waste disposal at sea are in force precluding this option. Also no suitable subduction sites occur anywhere near the UK.

May 3, 2016 at 1:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

When I say " relatively easy access to plutonium" I mean that a future nation - 1000 years from now, say - with a waste repository on its territory, could mine the plutonium.
Let me throw a curve ball into this and ask "why should I care?"
1,000 years ago we hadn't even had the Norman invasion. The Reformation was 500 years into the future. The average peasant, which would pretty much be most us I suspect, barely had a tallow candle to light his hovel with which didn't matter all that much 'cos he couldn't read and anyway he had yet another back-breaking day's toil in front of him.

My point is that we cannot regulate our lives by what our great-grandchildren 50 times removed might or might not take it into their heads to do. I'm happy as a minimum to consider the well-being of our potential great-great-grandchildren, which is to say my grandchildren's grandchildren and possibly even extend it a bit further but already that is 150 years into the future. Where would we be if those alive in 1850 had ordered their lives to suit us rather than themselves?

I'm not suggesting we should be cavalier with nuclear waste, far from it, but to take action on storing it or disposing of it or using it on the basis of what somebody might do with it in 1000 years time is taking our responsibility to future generations a bit far.

May 3, 2016 at 2:02 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Alan

RTGs have been used since Voyager. So we already have had rockets flying around with radiogenic materials onboard for many decades.

There has also been considerable effort to provide impact shielding as the fears of rocket explosions are part and parcel of launches.

Most RTGs aren't that large as they tend to be heavy. So it would be a slow process of changing spent fuel into useful radiogenic thermopiles and launching them.

May 3, 2016 at 2:08 PM | Registered CommenterMicky H Corbett

Alan. People a millennium in the future will either have no use for plutonium (using fusion power of something more exotic?) or will have regressed to the point that mining at depths of a kilometre will.be beyond them.

Strangely, thought has been given to the possibility of a global disaster wiping out all knowledge of the location of nuclear waste repository sites, and future people inadvertently mining into them. It was suggested that a new religion be established with a priestly cult devoted to keeping the uninitiated away from the sites. Don't think that idea went anywhere, but if it were I would vote for Ayla being installed as high priestess.

May 3, 2016 at 2:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

Mr K. (May 3, 2016 at 1:48 PM): you could always make it happen.

This might appeal to you.

And this puts humans more into perspective.

Whatever… Mike Jackson does speak a lot of common sense, as do you.

May 3, 2016 at 2:50 PM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

Alan

The question related to the best way to deal with radio-active waste, it did not ask that rules made by not very bright people should be taken into account ^.^

May 3, 2016 at 2:52 PM | Registered CommenterDung

golf Charlie. It's quite safe for you to sail into Falmouth. The problem with radon is that it became concentrated to significantly high levels in cellars. Improved ventilation removed the problem so that owners could get their wine without fear.

May 3, 2016 at 3:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

Dung, an awful confusion of Alans, all we need is for Alan the Brit to join in.

May 3, 2016 at 3:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

RR. Made my day, thank you. Strictly speaking he had a mountain building licence. Subduction should have led to the desk sinking into the ground.

Hypercritical.geologist on board!

May 3, 2016 at 3:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

MHC. I don't think use of nuclear waste in various space programmes will contribute much to solving the problem. I thought you were referring to transporting our waste spacewards in order to use it up there

In order that the waste be used to power equipment, it's thermal output to weight ratio would have that be improved by reprocessing it. If it's going to be reprocessed, why not reprocess all of the waste and use the plutonium on the Earth's surface?

I am aware that nuclear materials have been used in space for decades. I'm also aware of the horrendous cleanup costs involved when those materials come back uninvited, as happened in northern Canada.

May 3, 2016 at 3:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

Mike Jackson. I think I mostly agree. The moral problem, however,cannot entirely be so easily dismissed. After all, those pre-Norman Anglo-Saxons did not leave us a long-lived toxic legacy. Furthermore, why 1000 years, why not 200 years or even less?

I don't have answers but would encourage others to discuss.

May 3, 2016 at 3:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Kendall

Alan

Had a look at the Kosmos 954 incident. The reactor wasn't quite the same thing as a plutonium salt thermopile for example. Which is also the reason I proposed some older waste could be used.

Turns out Sr 90 RTGs can be made using spent fuel as this isotope is abundant after fuel rod use. Also Americium, which was what the UK study was considering is also a byproduct of nuclear fuel use. So it is feasible especially if asteroid mining takes off as is planned to in the next 20 years.

May 3, 2016 at 4:23 PM | Registered CommenterMicky H Corbett

When I say " relatively easy access to plutonium" I mean that a future nation - 1000 years from now, say - with a waste repository on its territory, could mine the plutonium.

Let me throw a curve ball into this and ask "why should I care?".

May 3, 2016 at 2:02 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Well I don't have all the answers, but I don't think the ethical questions should be dismissed as being nothing to do with us just because the people involved are far away temporally.

My point is that we cannot regulate our lives by what our great-grandchildren 50 times removed might or might not take it into their heads to do

What I'm trying to point out is that we are not decoupled from the question. It would be not only a matter of them taking it into their heads to commence large scale weapon manufacture at low cost but it would have been us that had handed them the means to do it.

If I leave a loaded rifle in my attic, and someone happens to come across it after I die, do I have (posthumously) a degree of responsibility for what might happen after they find it?

May 3, 2016 at 4:33 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Sorry about Tilbury! That part of England is unknown territory to me.

Just reverting back to my original question but the explosion of the discussion is very informative, it seems we've ruled out most of the rock in the UK mainly due to leakage of contamination. But Alan Kendall says that


Those who would do us harm would have to negotiate at least a kilometre down a shaft, travel to the repository itself, remove the concrete and bentonite barrier, then breach into the stainless steel containers. Then the boron glass containing the waste would have to be manhandled back to and up the shaft.

This raises the question in my mind just how likely is a leak from this type repository? With a couple of supplementaries how long would it take to start leaking? When it does how likely is it that the leaked material will reach water we'd have access to?

If the period required to reach a low enough level of radio-activity for the waste to be considered non-hazardous is 10,000 years (seems the standard number) then at what point has it become what we currently call low level waste? Or is the storage time in excess of 10,000 years in reality?

It's totally irrelevant but every time I see 10,000 years I can't help thinking Banzai!

May 3, 2016 at 4:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Martin A
Can we plan for every eventuality? Should we be held responsible if we don't, should we try and see the future?.

Just for example, if someone digs up a a "Plague Pit£ which has active bacteria surviving in the ground can the those who buried the problem they had be held responsible for any deaths caused by later generations digging up this pit for which there were no records? When the burial took place the cause of death was unknown, nor did anyone know that we'd have JCBs capable of digging up the bodies in a day, nor did they know we might want to dig a hole in that location

May 3, 2016 at 4:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS