The main challenge associated with the nuclear energy is the disposal of the resultant waste. Although several ways of storing nuclear waste have been established, nuclear waste disposal remains to be a major issue as none of the available alternatives are comprehensive enough in their solutions. The biggest challenge emanates from the fact that storage of the nuclear waste requires an incredibly long time, running into thousands of years.
The question of nuclear waste management remains a challenging one given that projections indicate a possible rise in the use of nuclear power in the future. The already existing nuclear power stations have a big stockpile of the nuclear waste, with permanent disposal still unresolved.
This paper seeks to discuss the question of nuclear waste disposal and the challenges faced by the developed countries relying on the technology for their power production.
In particular, this research will analyse the different ways through which other countries deal with the problem, determine whether Australia can adopt a better alternative in disposing its nuclear waste, and elaborate on two alternative methods through which nuclear waste disposal can be done.
Up to one-third of Europes electricity is sourced from nuclear power reactors. Europe had 145 reactors operating across 15 countries in the continent by 2007, with an addition of eight more reactors being planned (European Commission Joint Research Centre, 2010, para 2).
These nuclear reactors have already disposed of a significant amount of nuclear waste into the environment. The problem of nuclear waste will prove to be a complicated situation as the numbers of the reactors increase.
Japan is dealing with the nuclear waste disposal challenge by shipping waste to Rokkasho processing plant for storage. Although the country has a special policy addressing disposal of nuclear waste, its plans have fallen way behind the schedule. The policy concerns the closed-fuel-cycle that governs the disposal of its close to 1,000 tonnes of nuclear waste.
Plans are underway to establish a by 2050 (Bream et al., 2006, p. 8). An underground repository is being constructed for the disposal of radioactive waste in Finland. The country intends to place its old nuclear fuel bars in steel canisters before encasing them in copper (Bream et al., 2006, p. 8).
The UK government has obtained recommendations from its appointed body to bury its nuclear waste deep underground. In the case of the USA, a similar waste disposal method has been established, where the Yucca Mountain has been selected as the right site for undertaking the disposal.
Although the site had been identified back in 1957, controversies had been slowing the actual undertaking of the programme. However, 2017 has been selected as the official date when the disposal activities will take place (Bream et al., 2006, p. 8).
This research has mainly focused on secondary sources of data to form its basis of discussion and analysis. The sources of information used include research reports on the same topical issue, journal articles published mainly by professionals in the field of nuclear energy, as well as textbook materials and other useful publications.
The secondary sources of information used in this research were all prepared after undertaking a critical research on the subject matter.
Problems and Issues
Australia faces the challenge of finding a the disposal of its nuclear power waste. As a challenge that also faces all other countries in the world with nuclear power plants, the main issue revolves around developing an internationally accepted high-isolation disposal site that is also approved as per the international standards.
This requires interconnectivity between the docking facilities at the seaport with railway lines to facilitate transport of the waste. The presence of nuclear reactors in Australia presents the country with an even greater challenge because of the high radioactivity initial levels.
The for the safe disposal of the radioactive materials could require at least 5,000 years. Abiding by the stringent regulations requires the development of methods that can allow nuclear waste to be kept in isolation for very long durations. The graph below depicts decay of materials containing high-level radioactivity in years.
Decay in radioactivity of high-level waste from reprocessing one tonne of spent PWR fuel
Source: Quirk (2005, p. 15)
Nuclear power remains to the best alternative that can effectively replace fossil energy and power, given that many developed countries in the world still pursue plans to advance their industrialisation.
The countries are investing their resources to increase the number of the nuclear reactors that have since been established in their territories. As Marvin (2005, p. 41) highlights, the total number of nuclear reactors worldwide has increased to 440, with the disposal problems also increasing proportionally.
Canada has been storing its nuclear waste material in water-filled pools located near the reactor sites since the 1950s (Kraft, 2000, p. 206). Although this is the storage method that has been adopted, it is critical to point out that the initial intention of this technique was only to allow for the dissipation of the intense heat of the materials. The original plan was to have the storage last for a few years only.
The materials were then intended for reprocessing to separate the fission by-products from the usable uranium and plutonium, with the remaining waste being disposed as . However, fuel reprocessing was previously not pursued seriously in both Canada and the United States of America (Kraft, 2000, p. 206).
Both countries are expected to dispose of the radioactive materials in mined geological repositories. Both Canada and the US intend to undertake waste retrieval, leaving disposal as the permanent method likely to be used for the management of the waste materials (Kraft, 2000, p. 206).
Canada is considering waste placement within long-lasting canisters, measuring between 1,500 and 3,000 feet below the granite or platonic rock. These, however, remain to be plans on paper as a specific site for the dumping has not been selected by the government (Kraft, 2000, p. 209).
Russia has introduced a law that allows the country to import spent nuclear fuel from other countries and consequently store the waste materials within her territory (Dawson & Darst, 2005, p. 10). The country fronted itself as the only willing nation in the industrialised world seeking to construct a permanent repository that would see it dispose of nuclear waste materials from its reactors and other countries in the world safely.
Although the country has huge areas of land that are sparsely populated, which can act as the best sites for the dumping of the waste materials, its willingness to accept the importation of waste materials from other countries raises serious environmental concerns (Dawson & Darst, 2005, p. 10).
Adoption of an Alternative Approach
High-temperature gas reactors
The best approach that countries should consider is the use of high temperature gas reactors in dealing with the challenges of disposing nuclear waste materials (Marvin, 2005, p. 41). In particular, the high temperature gas reactors that rely on the use of triple-coated carbon or silicon carbide, abbreviated as TRISO, are highly efficient in redressing the material disposal challenges (Marvin, 2005, p. 41).
This technique does not disgorge huge amounts of excess heat and it mainly ameliorates the critical waste disposal issues at present. In essence, though the may not be able to address the problem of material disposal comprehensively, their high efficiency will help in reducing the problem that is currently being experienced.
How important the issue of nuclear waste disposal is for Australia
Australia is a developed country that experiences the challenge of providing additional electricity to cater for its demand. Like other developed countries, there is an increasing urge for the country to add more nuclear reactors in order to serve the rising demand. However, Australia is increasingly facing the dilemma of addressing the disposal challenges even as it seeks to add the number of nuclear reactors in the country.
The resultant environmental repercussions could be an issue of great concern for the future generations in the country given the long duration required to safely dump and recycle the nuclear materials.
How Nuclear Disposal can be improved in Australia
Australia can consider adopting transmutation as a way of improving nuclear waste material problem in the country. This technique will help in the conversion of chemical elements into less harmful materials. In this case, the highly radioactive materials can change from Potassium to Argon or from Chlorine to Argon (Keiser et al, 2008, p. 29).
Thus, a solution to the disposal challenge of having to store materials for long will be found by using this alternative method. Australia can rely on transmutation to lower the environmental dangers of burying the used materials, instead of using repositories.
Space disposal involves literally dumping the nuclear waste materials in space. The waste material is stuffed in a space shuttle before launching it into space. Although this method provides a perfect alternative to the environmental challenge posed by the burying of the waste material, its practicality is questionable.
Only a small amount of the waste material can be shipped at every given instance. The expenses involved are also exorbitant, thereby reducing its value altogether (Coopersmith, 2005, p. 600).
Australias Disposal of Nuclear Waste
Australias general waste disposal techniques and methods are comparatively good. The nuclear waste material in the country contains low-level radioactivity that is safe for the environment. Although no central disposal facility exists in the country for the dumping of the low-level wastes, there are several dispersed locations throughout the country where the disposal of the waste materials is done (ANSTO, 2011, p. 8).
The country has a comprehensive regulatory framework that seeks to protect it from uncontrolled dumping of the highly radioactive materials. It is worth pointing out that although Australia has a rich deposit of Uranium, no nuclear power reactors are established in the country (Asialaw, 2007, para 1). Instead, the nuclear chemical is sold to other countries, such as South Korea and China, which have established nuclear reactors.
This is significant in addressing the question of disposing of nuclear waste materials because often the nuclear reactors produce the biggest amount of the waste materials. The regulatory framework also bars the importation of nuclear waste materials in the country, further enhancing the good disposal practice observed by Australia (Asialaw, 2007, para 3).