The Nuclear Waste Problem

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up at the link in the description. Nuclear energy is one of the cleanest, most
efficient, and most available sources of power on earth. To generate one kilowatt hour of energy—the
amount an American household consumes in 48 minutes—nuclear power plants
only emit 12 grams of carbon dioxide— enough to fill about three two-liter soda bottles. Meanwhile, to produce the same amount of energy,
coal plants emit 820 grams of CO2—about a full
bathtub’s worth. Factoring in the environmental cost
of production, nuclear energy is cleaner than hydropower, than geothermal, than solar, than
really any energy source except wind. But that doesn’t necessarily mean nuclear
is the long-term solution for the world because nuclear material
is perhaps the most poisonous substance on earth. Two times in history have nuclear power plants
leaked significant amount of radiation—in 1986
in Chernobyl, Ukraine and in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan. 31 people died in Chernobyl with at
least a further 4,000 expected to contract early lethal cancer due to the radiation. Fukushima was
better contained with only two deaths, both unrelated to radiation, and only 130 early
cancer deaths expected, but additionally, each site
still today has massive exclusion zones where humans cannot live due to ongoing radiation. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced
from their homes and will never be allowed to return. The economic damage of Chernobyl is
estimated at nearly $250 billion dollars—significantly more than the GDP of Ukraine. The
Fukushima disaster, meanwhile, having taken place is a much more populated and developed
area, is estimated to set Japan back over $500 billion dollars—a full 10% of their
addition, uranium, the element most commonly used in nuclear reactors, is not in limitless
supply. Using present-day extraction methods, there’s
only about a 230 year supply of uranium left. Many would say nuclear is only a short-term
solution to reduce carbon emissions until truly
sustainable energy can become commonplace, but the biggest problem with nuclear energy
is not the risk of meltdown, it’s not the supply
of uranium, it’s this—nuclear waste. All current commercial nuclear power plants
work through the process of nuclear fission. As a radioactive element decays, the individuals
atoms split into multiple, but when that happens the reaction also releases energy. There are plenty of different designs of nuclear
reactors, but in general they capture the released energy by
using it to heat up water into steam which runs
through turbines that spin generators. The nuclear element used is typically uranium
which, after about six to eight years of usage in a nuclear
power plant will have released enough of its energy
that it is no longer useful in nuclear reactors, but that doesn’t mean it’s done emitting
energy. The
fuel rods will remain radioactive enough to emit a lethal dose for tens or hundreds of
thousands of years past their removal. So the question is, what do you do with them? The answer is simple—put them somewhere
where they can stay, undisturbed, isolated, forever, but that’s not all that easy. In fact, no nuclear waste worldwide is currently
in what is considered long-term storage. Every bit of nuclear waste in existence is
in temporary storage facilities to be used until a long-term solution
is built. Most of that nuclear waste is stored in pools
of water. Water does a decently good job of
shielding radiation so this is an inexpensive and easy way of storing the rods. Usually these pools
are physically inside the nuclear power plants so, when spent fuel is removed from the reactor,
it’s put directly into the water and left there. The radioactive material, since it’s still
emitting energy, continues to heat up the water, but
cooling systems and pumps keep the water below boiling temperature, but to do that the plant
needs power. If the power fails and the backup
generators fail, the pumps and cooling systems stop working so the water heats up and can
boil off. The water is what blocks the radiation so,
without water, the radiation just goes right out into
the environment. In fact, exactly that happened at Fukushima. Both the primary and backup
power sources failed so the pumps and cooling systems for the spent fuel pools couldn’t
run leaving the water to heat up. The situation was brought under control before
enough water had boiled off to release significant amounts
of radiation into the environment, but had it not been,
thousands could have been killed. Once nuclear waste has cooled down in storage
pools for ten to twenty years, it typically is encased in casks. These concrete and steel containers block
in radiation, but this solution is far from permanent. It does not consider earthquakes, it cannot
withstand tsunamis, and it would not work without humans. These casks require security and they require
maintenance. Without
humans, they could easily be damaged or breached over time and release radiation into the
environment. Modern humans have only existed for about
200,000 years, so one can hardly be sure that the species will survive for the
millions of years that the most toxic nuclear waste will
continue to emit radiation. What’s more, one can hardly expect that
the dominant civilizations that have nuclear technology today will continue
to exist for even thousands of years. The
Roman Empire was once without a doubt the most powerful civilization on earth. Scholars even
believe that it is the most powerful civilization to have ever existed on earth—more powerful
than the US, than Europe, than any modern civilization, but it fell, and so too will
the west. Therefore, long-term nuclear waste storage
needs to last longer than any political structure, it
needs to work without the supervision of humans, it needs to be truly and unequivocally
permanent. Finland is building just that. This region is largely devoid of natural disasters. It doesn’t
have earthquakes, it doesn’t see tsunamis, it really doesn’t encounter any natural
phenomenon that could damage a nuclear waste storage
site, especially if it’s 1,500 feet underground. Beneath
an island on the Finnish Baltic Sea coast, the country is digging. They’re building the very first
permanent nuclear waste storage facility in the world in the stable bedrock 1,500 feet
below. Currently they’re just finishing their dig
down then very soon, in 2020, they’ll start filling the
facility with nuclear waste. They’ll dig long tunnels with small holes
in which they’ll place casks of nuclear waste then backfill the tunnels
with clay to be left for an eternity. With this system,
there’s near zero risk of nuclear material leaking out into the groundwater and, once
it’s filled in the year 2120, it can just be left, forever. Because the material will be so far down and
so difficult to get to, no human management will
be necessary once completed. No security, no
maintenance, nothing which means it should be truly secure, but before leaving it, they
do need to fight against one thing—human nature. As curious beings, it’s hard to combat a
person’s urge of discovery. If someone finds a
mysterious structure from thousands of years ago, it’d just be natural to want to open
it up, and that’s a problem for nuclear waste sites. We essentially did just that with the pyramids
in Egypt. These structures were built as the final,
permanent resting places for the elites of Egypt and we
opened them up because we were curious. Opening the nuclear storage facilities would
release radiation into a future civilization, so we
have to tell them to leave the sites alone, but that’s
easier said than done. The US Department of Energy commissioned a
study on how to communicate the danger into the far future. The key is to create a message that conveys
how uninteresting, how unimportant, and how dangerous nuclear waste
is. They settled on the following text:
Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be
a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honor… no highly
esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is
here. What is here was dangerous and
repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger. The danger is in a
particular location… it increases toward a center… the center of danger is here…
of a particular size and shape, and below us. The danger is still present, in your
time, as it was in ours. The danger is to the body, and it can kill. The form of the
danger is an emanation of energy. The danger is unleashed only if you
substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left
uninhabited. The idea would be to translate a message like
this into every United Nations language— Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian,
and Spanish. There’s a reasonable hope that, at least
in the next couple thousand years, one of those languages would be understood. But in the scope
of hundreds of thousands of years, there’s just little expectation that these languages
would survive. There’s not even a reasonable expectation
that humans would survive. So, you need to
convey the same message without language. What the study suggests is to further push
the message by building a landscape that conveys danger. It could be a scene of thorns, or spikes,
or forbidding blocks. To satiate the
discoverer’s curiosity, it’s also suggested to add monoliths explaining the history of
the site through pictographs. Also included would be images like this, engraved
in stone, conveying that the substance has danger that will be passed
onto humans if touched, but the difficulty of this is
that it very well might not be humans exploring earth 100,000 years from now. It could be a
species that doesn’t recognize the likeness of what might be a long-extinct species. What some have suggested is to just let the
site be forgotten, to not mark it at all, to just
seal it up, and leave, but having something that significant disappear isn’t simple. The site in
Finland is designed to not need security or oversight, but its current location is very
well documented in a potentially irreversible way. With books and brains and the internet, records
of the site might exist until at least the end
of human civilization. To truly be forgotten, to truly be
left as part of nature, so too must humans be forgotten. If you want to learn more about clean energy
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