The Problem Of Atomic Waste (Part II)

Currently proposed solutions for reprocessing or storing atomic waste are either inadequate or nowhere near ready for deployment.

| January/February 1979

In part one of this series ("The Problem of Atomic Waste,") we left the reactor-produced radioactive wastes "cooling" at the power plant while those isotopes with short half-lives decayed away. The question now is: What can be done with the remaining long-lived wastes, those that will continue to be deadly for 1,000 to 500,000 years?

In theory, these reactor by-products can be shipped to a "reprocessing plant." If the wastes have been held at the power plant for 150 days, they will only contain about three percent of the radioactivity that they had when they were removed from the reactor. But, though this figure may sound small, these elements are still emitting an abundance of lethal radiation.

Furthermore, the heat generated by continuing radioactive decay is so intense that the used fuel rods would melt if they weren't constantly cooled during shipment. Therefore, any shipment must take place in heavily shielded, cooled casks which can weigh from 35 to 100 metric tons depending upon whether they're to be shipped by road or rail.

Needless to say, one of the first problems of nuclear waste management has been to design these containers so that they can stand up to possible accidents in transit—such as a speeding train hitting a cask-bearing truck at a grade crossing. Considerable engineering effort has no doubt gone into these containers. We are, at any rate, constantly assured by the nuclear industry that an accident involving cask rupture is virtually impossible. (And, If the industry has its way, we'll get to test the reliability of these containers. Because by the end of the century, thousands of cask trips will be made every year.)

But let's assume the journey from power plant to reprocessing plant is safely completed. What happens then? Well, first of all, the fuel rods are chopped up by automated equipment and dissolved in acid so that the various elements can be separated chemically.

Now unfortunately, current reprocessing-plant design allows some gaseous radioactive isotopes to be routinely released from the plants into the atmosphere. In fact, it is here that the largest routine releases designed into the nuclear fuel cycle occur, and these add a small fraction of natural radiation to the burden of ionizing radiation that humanity must already bear.

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