Nuclear waste is produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and enrichment, to the operation of the reactor and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Much of this nuclear waste will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, leaving a poisonous legacy to future generations. Decommissioning nuclear facilities will also create large amounts of radioactive waste. Many of the world’s nuclear sites will require monitoring and protection for centuries after they are closed down.
The global volume of spent fuel was 220,000 tonnes in 2000, and is growing by approximately 10,000 tonnes annually. Despite billions of dollars of investment in various disposal options, the nuclear industry and governments have failed to come up with a feasible and sustainable solution.
Most of the proposals for dealing with radioactive nuclear waste involve burying it in deep underground sites. Whether the storage containers, storage facility or surrounding rock will offer enough protection to stop radioactivity from escaping in the long term is impossible to predict.
An example of where industry plans have been exposed as flawed is the proposed dumpsite at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. After years of research and billions of dollars of investment, not one gram of spent fuel has been shipped to the site from nuclear reactors across the U.S. Major uncertainties in the geological suitability for waste disposal at the site remain, with ongoing investigations into manipulation of scientific data and the threat of legal action by the state government.
In addition to high-level waste problems, there are numerous examples of disposal sites containing low-level waste leaking radiation into the environment. No options have been able to demonstrate that waste will remain isolated.
Canadian radioactive waste
Canadian reactors have produced approximately 40,000 metric tonnes of high-level radioactive waste.
After being given a mandate by the federal government to recommend a Canadian option for the long-term management of radioactive waste, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) proposed a plan spanning 300 years and costing $24 billion to bury Canada’s high-level radioactive waste in Quebec, Ontario or Saskatchewan.