Nuclear waste – what will happen to it?

The United Kingdom, through Business Secretary John Hutton, has announced a program of updating and building nuclear powered electricity generators. EDF have agreed a price to buy the existing nuclear generator, British Energy and they are busy designing plans for the new power stations, which will take many years to complete. The Government has passed laws to streamline the planning process, that troublesome way that ordinary people and groups can have their say about nuclear and other developments in their own back yards, thus preventing these plans being implemented or delayed. Everything is in place for the new nuclear age, except one thing – where do we put the nuclear waste?

In Barnwell County, South Carolina for nearly forty years, there has been a low level nuclear waste storage facility. Low level nuclear waste comes from small radioactive seeds, smaller than rice seeds that have been used in the treatment of cancer, nuclear tubes used in industrial gauges and nuclear waste of low level generated by industry, laboratories and hospitals.

Barnwell processed this low level waste by locking it in concrete and burying the concrete stores in landfill. The facility was the only one of its kind in the United States and it is now no longer accepting wastes from some 36 other American states, and is restricting it nuclear waste storage to low level waste from South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut.

In 2006 Barnwell stored 40,000 cubic feet of waste. Next year it expects to store only 9000 cubic feet.

There is a debate about whether Barnwell’s radiation levels are too high, and some fear that the radioactive waste may leak into groundwater. On the other hand there is no evidence of damage to health and the facility has brought prosperity and employment to Barnwell.

Like the UK, the USA is planning dozens of new nuclear plants, but no one has yet come up with a solution for storing the higher level waste that these plants will create.

Now in the US many States have no place to store the low level waste that society generates in hospitals Universities and industry. There is no easy answer. The waste, of whatever level, must be stored securely and safely for many years – longer than recorded history, before it is truly safe. For the time being hospitals and the like will have to hang on to their own low level nuclear waste for a few years, and that cannot be a safe or secure option.

As I have said, the nuclear energy is ready to grow very quickly, and it will grow whether we solve the problem of how and where to dispose of the waste or not. If we cannot solve where to store the waste and how to store it, we will have dumps of radioactive waste at nuclear power stations, in hospital cupboards and in factories and Universities, for such time until we come up with solutions?

 

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