Nuclear waste involves the byproducts of radiation resulting from the reaction and combustion of radioactive materials. It is a byproduct of nuclear power generation and other fission technologies. Such technologies include those in research and medicine. The waste can also arise from the decommissioning and dismantling of nuclear facilities (Miller 363). The US is currently regarded as the country with the highest use of radioactive power and nuclear fission technology in the world. It discharges about 18000 tons of nuclear waste from its reactors annually (Recktenwald and Deinert 1873).
The volume of nuclear waste products and spent fuel in the world has increased. As such, stakeholders need to come up with a disposal and management strategy to address the problem (Rana 89). In this paper, the author will focus on the current nuclear waste management practices in the US and other countries around the world.
Current Nuclear Waste Storage and Disposal Practices in the United States
Discussions on the suitable nuclear waste storage practices in the US started in the early 1950s (Miller 360). The discussions led to the enactment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA). The legislation was put in place in 1982. It was created to oversee the management of spent fuel. The act required the Department of Energy (DOE) to concentrate on Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the site for a repository of spent fuels and other highly radioactive by-products. The accumulation of nuclear plants across the country accelerated the need for long-term storage of the spent fuel to solve the immediate harm it had on the ecosystem. The development led to the official endorsement of a storage site in 2002 (Miller 360). In 2013, the DOE agreed to have an alternative permanent site opened in 2048. The date was pushed from 1998, which had been proposed earlier. Currently, over 140 nuclear reactors are in operation in 31 states. The government projects the need for electricity to rise by 22% in 2035 (Miller 362).
After it is removed from the reactors, the spent fuel is stored underwater to cool it. The storage is also meant to shield workers from radiations as the waste awaits permanent disposal. Most of these materials stay for years in the storage pools before they are disposed of. Reports indicate that the pools are nearly full and the radiations from these sites are not well controlled. As such, waste poses a danger to the environment (Miller 365).
The US government has put in place a strategy for the management and disposal of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The authorities recognize the need for interim storage as a permanent disposal method is found (Soria et al. 5). The government has agreed on the site, design, licensing, and construction of a facility with a capacity to handle more than 20,000 MTHM of waste. The strategy is consolidated interim storage that should be operational by 2025 (Soria et al. 6).
In 2012, the US Congress recognized the need to re-evaluate and develop a permanent solution for spent fuel. It was to agree on the controversial bill that departed from the recommendation for a link between temporary storage facilities and transfer to a permanent geological repository (Miller 382). In the same year, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee conducted a hearing on the proposed bill. In January 2013, the DOE announced that it will put in place an interim storage facility by 2025 (Miller 384).
Nuclear Waste Management Strategies in the United States and other parts of the World: A Comparative Analysis
Finding a suitable spent fuel repository site is a complicated process that is characterized by a wide range of challenges (Newman et al. 170). The factors put into consideration when selecting a site involves geological, financial, security, political, social, and environmental impacts. The effects of the site on humans, plants, and the entire ecosystem are also taken into consideration (Newman et al. 171). More than 30 countries around the world have nuclear power reactors. Between them, the facilities generate about 10,500 metric tons of spent fuel annually. Out of this, only 270,000 metric tons are in storage. The figure is equivalent to 90% of storage pools. The remaining 10% is in dry casks (Newman et al. 170).
In the US, the disposal of spent fuel is the responsibility of the federal government. However, the identification of disposal sites for low-level wastes is carried out by the states (Miller 383). Small disposal sites handle class A, B, and C low-level waste. The DOE is also coming up with alternatives to geological spent fuel disposal sites. However, these sites are opposed by members of the public. Also, there are uncertainties in funding (Miller 384). Some of the proposed alternatives include disposal below the sea bed, transport into space, and reprocessing or recycling of the spent fuel.
In Europe, most countries use nuclear power to generate electricity. Belgium has seven nuclear reactors. The reactors provide approximately 52% of the electricity in the country. Other countries with nuclear reactors include Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, and the UK. Like the US, Europe is facing challenges associated with the management of spent fuel. For instance, countries with small nuclear power programs have raised concerns over funding. On their part, countries with advanced repository systems are concerned over the lack of domestic support (Newman et al. 172). However, collaborations have been established with the help of a pilot study conducted in 2003 and 2008. The study led to the formation of the European Repository Development Organisation (Newman et al. 173).
In 2011, the European Council came up with a binding legal mechanism policy. The policy allowed countries to dispose of wastes in the member states within which they were generated (Newman et al. 174). Sweden and Finland, on the other hand, have developed and adopted an open cycle mechanism. They are constructing geological repositories for the storage of fuel material. The mechanism involves the use of copper capsules with granite subsoil (Soria et al. 3). In Spain, eight operating plants produce 21% of electricity in the country. In 2011, the plants accounted for 95% of waste in the region (Soria et al. 4). France has 58 nuclear reactors. The reactors generate 75% of the electricity consumed in the country. A plutonium reprocessing mechanism has been put in place (Soria et al. 4).
A 2011 disaster in Germany brought to a halt seven reactors that had been operating since 1981. The public raised concerns over unsafe storage of spent fuel. As a result, the government agreed to close all the reactors by 2022 (Soria et al. 5). Great Britain has 19 operating reactors. The reactors generate approximately 20% of the electricity in the country. France, Russia, and the UK use reprocessing to solve the problem of spent fuel in Europe.
China, Japan, Canada, and South Korea are known to use nuclear energy. South Korea started using the technology in 1950s. The country joined the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957 (Newman and Nagtzaamm 200). The main function of this body is to regulate the use of atomic energy. South Korea built a repository site in 2014 (Newman and Nagtzaamm 214). Countries in the Middle East are facing challenges about the storage of spent fuel. As such, neighboring countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan need to have a cooperative network and regional frameworks for storage and disposal mechanisms. A similar idea would be beneficial to other countries in Asia, the Gulf region, and Africa (Newman et al. 173).
Newcomers like the Middle East and Africa have small nuclear power plants. They require a regional approach to a “win-win” solution to the problems associated with the expansion of nuclear power technology. The move can be used to address security and non-proliferation concerns in spent fuel and highly radioactive waste (Newman et al. 174). Some of the countries with reprocessing facilities include Japan, the UK, India, Pakistan, and China.
Reprocessing as a Disposal Method for Nuclear Waste
Reprocessing of spent fuel involves refining spent fuel to decrease the level of waste material generated from a nuclear plant. It is also used to extract usable substances from waste (Naziemiec et al. 2). The fuel material is separated after shearing. The resulting structural insoluble metal part is then compacted. It is then packed into stainless steel containers. The process reduces the total volume of waste by a factor of five. Toxicity is reduced by 10% (Soria et al. 4).
Reprocessing History in the United States
The material mainly used is either uranium or plutonium. It is extracted and then enriched. Reprocessing was first done in the US in the 1940s. It was aimed at recovering plutonium for nuclear weapons (Naziemiec et al. 3). Currently, no civil reprocessing plants are operating in the country. However, three such plants have been built. They include West Valley in New York, Morris in Illinois, and Barnwell in South Carolina. Two of these were banned from operations in the 1970s. The ban resulted from proliferation and breach of government policies (Naziemiec et al. 4). There are several other reprocessing plants. However, they are not in use due to safety and practicability concerns. By the end of September 2014, more than 90,000 metric tons of spent fuel had been reprocessed around the world from commercial nuclear reactors (Farah 187). Reprocessing is viewed as the best management practice about nuclear waste. However, it does not eliminate the need for permanent disposal for spent fuel (Farah 188).
Nations using Reprocessing of Nuclear Waste
Countries like France, Pakistan, China, the UK, Russia, India, and Japan have successfully used reprocessing to manage nuclear waste (Soria et al. 3). France uses a closed fuel system. The country transports spent fuel to reprocessing facilities where it is recovered and reused (Farah 187). Reprocessing is a cost-effective strategy. The procedure reduces the cost of disposal by about 11% (Soria et al. 6).
Many countries are facing challenges associated with the disposal and management of nuclear waste. The cost and health concerns are high, making it the management of an expensive venture. Nuclear energy provided the energy that can be used in medical and other scientific studies. As such, governments should come up with clear and objective policies to manage nuclear waste.
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