Radioactive Waste

Page - April 7, 2005
Nuclear Reactors Create Radioactive Waste That Will Remain Hazardous For 240,000 Years

More than 50 years after splitting the first atom, science has yet to devise a method for adequately handling long lived radioactive wastes. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission separates wastes into two broad classifications: high-level and low-level waste.

High-level radioactive waste is the uranium fuel that fires the nuclear reactor. Once removed from the reactor, the irradiated fuel is considered high-level radioactive waste. Whether in the reactor or in the large pools adjacent, high-level radioactive waste must be cooled by water to prevent it from melting down.

Only after spending more than five years cooling in the fuel pool can the radioactive fuel rods be placed in large dry casks at the reactor site. High-level radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants accounts for 95% of the radioactivity generated in the last 50 years from all sources, including nuclear weapons production. High-level wastes are hazardous because of their high radiation levels that are capable of producing fatal doses within moments of exposure. Once the uranium atoms begin to split, neutrons are given off and absorbed by fuel which produces plutonium and other long lived radioactive wastes.

Plutonium 239 has a half-life of approximately 24,000 years. That means that after 24,000 years half of the radioactivity contained in the plutonium will have decayed. However, the hazardous life of radioactive waste is at least ten times the half-life, therefore these wastes will have to be isolated from the environment for 240,000.

Because nuclear waste will remain hazardous longer than our ability to contain it, it must be retrievable. Since nuclear waste will remain hazardous for at least 240,000 years it must be monitored in perpetuity. In the short term, nuclear waste should remain at the reactor site or where ever it is currently stored. It is both technologically impossible and scientifically irresponsible to "dispose" of nuclear waste.

Adequately managing these radioactive wastes for 240,000 years is, at best, a daunting proposition. The nuclear industry has already proven itself incapable of keeping track of its high-level nuclear waste for even 30 years. High-level radioactive waste has already gone missing from one, if not several, nuclear reactors. Scientists working on the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain acknowledge that nuclear waste will be hazardous longer than our ability to isolate it from the biosphere.

Even attempts to "dispose" of low-level radioactive waste have been an abysmal failure. The only thing "low level" about low-level radioactive waste is its name. Low-level radioactive waste contains the same long-lived and highly hazardous radioactive materials in high-level waste merely in lesser quantities. The NRC basically defines low-level waste as radioactive wastes other than high-level waste. The government has licensed seven sites in the United States to bury low-level radioactive wastes. However, only three of these low-level waste dumps are in operation. They are located in Hanford, Washington; Clive, Utah; and Barnwell, South Carolina. The four closed dumps located in West Valley New York; Maxey Flats, Kentucky; Beatty, Nevada and Sheffield Illinois have all leaked radiation in to the surrounding environment.

Concerned citizens have halted attempts to open other low-level waste dumps throughout the country although the nuclear industry's efforts continue, especially in Texas. Since citizen opposition to this irresponsible dumping has driven up costs on the nuclear industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly attempted to de-regulate radioactive waste so that it can be dumped into normal land fills and recycled into consumer products.

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