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Nuclear Waste

Essay by   •  February 23, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  2,534 Words (11 Pages)  •  1,674 Views

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Nuclear power is widely utilized in the world today. It accounts for about twenty percent of the electricity generated in the United States and about sixteen percent of the electricity generated in the world. Over the last fifty years, nuclear power has gone from the drawing board to more than four hundred state of the art nuclear power plants operating around the world today. An unfortunate consequence of this rise in nuclear produced energy has been a dramatic increase in nuclear waste. When compared to other methods of power generation, nuclear power appears to be very cost effective and efficient. This is because of the relatively small amount of fuel required to generate the electricity. However, the small amount, and relatively cheap cost, of the fuel can be deceiving. Spent fuel cannot simply be discarded or thrown away. Because of the radioactivity of the spent fuel, it must be handled with great care and stored properly to prevent any radioactive contamination from escaping into the environment. The cost of this handling and disposal greatly increases the overall cost of nuclear energy.

The safety of nuclear power plants is often questioned. Since the horrible disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the public has shied away from these potentially dangerous nuclear plants. These accidents are also one of the main reasons why no nuclear power plant has been built in the United States in over 20 years. In the time since these catastrophic accidents, great care has been taken to implement safety systems in today's nuclear power plants. The safety systems are state of the art and will virtually prevent any chance of a future nuclear accident. The systems used are passive, which do not require operator intervention to work properly. Most plants can safely operate with no operators for several months. The issue of safety, with regard to nuclear power plants, has basically been solved. However, there still exists a large problem, nuclear waste.

Traditional power plants, which use fossil fuels like coal, gas, and oil, burn up all the fuel used to create the electricity. The only thing left of the fuel is the smoke created from burning it. This fuel must be constantly purchased at increasing prices. Fossil fuels will not be around forever. The world's supply of fossil fuels will eventually run out. When this happens, nuclear power plants may be the only practical choice for the production of electricity. Nuclear power plants differ from fossil fuel using plants because of the different type of fuel used. After the nuclear fuel has been used up it does not disappear. Most of the original fuel still exists. However, it exists as highly radioactive waste. Some of this high-level waste must be stored for several thousand years before it has reached a safe level of radioactivity. In the six decades that nuclear technology has been used, "nuclear weapons programs and nuclear reactors have produced over 45,000 metric tons and 380,000 cubic meters of high-level radioactive spent fuel and process waste." (Coopersmith). The storage of this spent fuel and processed waste represents one of the biggest challenges facing nuclear power plants today.

As of today there has been no actual long term storage of high-level nuclear waste. At each nuclear power plant there are spent fuel pools in which the nuclear waste created from that plant is stored. These pools only offer a short term solution for storing the nuclear waste. The waste is kept there because it needs to cool down and because there is currently no other place to store it. Most nuclear power plants are nearing the end of their operating life and this waste will have to be disposed of in a long term storage facility. Right now, there are no facilities to put the fuel. However, there are many different plans to create acceptable, long term storage facilities.

One proposed solution for the United States is to bury the country's nuclear waste about a thousand feet underground beneath Yucca Mountain. Yucca Mountain is located about one hundred miles north of Las Vegas and is situated in the middle of a nuclear testing site. Yucca Mountain has been studied for several decades to see if it is a suitable location to build a repository for the long term storage of radioactive waste. The projected cost for building a repository underneath the mountain is between fifty and one hundred billion dollars. The cost, although it initially seems high, is not a huge problem. Since the dawn of the nuclear era, a one tenth of a cent tax has been placed on every kilowatt of nuclear generated electricity used by the public. The fund has, so far, accumulated over twenty eight billion dollars. This fund will continue to grow. The money can only be used to cover the large costs associated with the storage of nuclear waste. The fund will pay for the majority of the money required to build a repository. However, if additional money is required, it could be obtained by raising the tax on the usage of nuclear generated electricity. (Yucca Mountain Repository)

Storing the waste at Yucca Mountain is a very controversial issue. Although the storage site is a long way from the closest inhabited area, residents of Nevada are very opposed to it. The nearby residents are worried that having a nuclear waste storage facility near their homes will have detrimental effects on their lives and their surrounding environment. However, if constructed properly the facility will shield the environment against the emission of the harmful alpha, beta, and gamma rays emitted by the radioactive waste. The residents' concern most likely stems from what is known as NIMBY, or "not in my back yard". They simply want the storage facility to be built somewhere else. The problem is that there might not be a somewhere else. Yucca Mountain is one of the few suitable geological places to store radioactive waste inside of the United States.

Besides storing the waste at Yucca Mountain, there are also other types of geological storage methods. Research in Sweden has yielded a method of storage abbreviated as KBS-3. This method entails encapsulating the waste in iron then encapsulating the capsule of iron in copper. This capsule is then placed into a hole drilled several hundred feet into the ground. This method has yet to be utilized on a large scale, although, it has been tested with small amounts of high-level waste with promising results. Sweden is one country that plans to utilize this technique. They plan to build a final repository and store the nuclear waste underground. Once stored, the waste will not require any monitoring from future generations. Sweden hopes to begin the construction of the repository by the year 2020. If the results are favorable, several other countries might adopt this method. (Final Repository - SKB)

Another proposed solution is to bury the waste in the

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