by Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan

Building from my previous article defending the utilisation of nuclear power sources for electricity generation, I will now be focusing on the science behind nuclear waste management. Quite rightly, as many readers were quick to point out, my last article did not touch upon waste management in any measure of significance. The reason behind this mysterious omission is not due to me being in any way a shill of the industry or funded by big nuclear. Trust me, if I was, I’d have a fancier website! That article was in response to Tun Mahathir’s scoffing of nuclear energy as being unsafe and his eagerness to focus on coal. Moreover, I wished to also capture the flaws in the counter arguments against Tun M’s speech which focused on renewable energy sources, mainly from the perspectives of safety and scale. The length constraints I put on myself prevented me from elaborating further.

Be that as it may, let us first define what nuclear waste is. Generally speaking, there are 3 categories of nuclear waste, namely;

  1. Low Level Waste (LLW);
  2. Intermediate Level Waste (ILW);
  3. High Level Waste (HLW).

Low Level Waste and Intermediate Level Waste

Of these, LLW makes up around 90% of the total amount of waste generated by nuclear power plants. These include scrap metal, paper and plastics which have been contaminated with radioactive material or exposed to neutron radiation. These wastes are sent to be processed and disposed at certain sites which are purpose-built yet are not dissimilar to normal municipal waste disposal sites. Existing disposal facilities have very strict limits on radioactivity for LLW. LLWs that exceed this amount, like graphite from reactor cores, must be considered when developing long-term disposal options for higher level wastes. However, LLW of this type form only a very small proportion of the whole. LLWs of very low levels of radioactivity can also be disposed of in authorised landfill sites alongside commercial and municipal wastes, with strict limitations of course.

Traditionally, LLWs are stored in repositories by first grouting (immobilizing with cement) inside metal containers. Once full, the metal containers will be fit with a cap. However, further processing may be done before this step to reduce the amount of waste produced. These include recycling metals of low radioactivity, incineration of certain wastes (like plastics and textiles), cutting and supercompacting. All in all, LLWs can be dealt with in a straightforward, uncomplicated manner.

ILWs are a little trickier. Treatment including supercompacting, cutting and drying may be utilised before packaging for storage and disposal. ILWs are similarly immobilised in cement-based materials and packed into steel, concrete or ductile cast iron boxes. Where it gets complicated is long-term management of ILWs. For some, near surface disposal akin to LLWs are enough, but others, which exhibit higher radioactivity levels, would require robust, long-term storage. For this, the method for disposal has to follow that for HLWs.

High Level Waste

HLWs are the main concern when it comes to nuclear waste. Though they make up a small amount of all nuclear wastes, 99% of the total radioactive content is contained by HLWs. Moreover, HLWs are long-lasting wastes, with radioactive half-lives of some nuclei stretching for thousands of years (though this doesn’t mean the total level of radioactivity remains very high for this long due to the decay of other nuclei). HLWs comprise of spent fuel rods and other contents of the reactor post-utilisation and are stored initially underwater in pools onsite at their respective power plants. Water is a good retardant for radiation and also cools the rods for about 50 years until both radioactivity and temperature decreases to manageable levels. The pools themselves are made of thick, reinforced concrete with steel liners, designed to withstand various potential hazards such as flooding and earthquakes and will hold all of the used fuel produced over the lifetime of the reactor.

Some of the HLWs can be transferred into dry casks with air circulation inside concrete shielding after a minimum of 5 years inside the water tanks. Others remain indefinitely within the tanks for about 50 years. HLWs may also be treated through vitrification in order to facilitate transport. This includes mixing them with glass forming materials and heated to high temperatures which will immobilise HLWs in glass. This is then sealed in stainless steel canisters to be stored temporarily.

Permanent Disposal

Permanent disposal of HLWs is a bone of contention between professionals and the general public, especially because the most viable method of disposal currently is geological disposal. This requires disposing radioactive wastes deep inside a suitable rock volume (hill ranges, for example) that will ensure long-term safety and environmental sustainability. However, the general public are usually opposed to this solution as it is believed simply burying nuclear waste would irradiate soil, cause massive pollution and health complications. This is decidedly wrong as the methods of disposal are sufficient to ensure any safety or pollution concerns are properly addressed.

Even so, there is no dedicated deep geological repository site that is currently in operation anywhere in the world. Steps to create them were proposed but most were shot down, again due to public perception. The most famous amongst these is the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, a huge deep geological repository project which was approved in 2002 by the 107th United States Congress, but had to be closed for political reasons. This leaves nuclear power plants to store their waste through indefinite on-site dry cask storage instead as a long-term solution is found.

All is not lost, though, as Finland and Sweden pave the way forward. Proper inclusion of the public has smoothened efforts in Finland to open a deep geological repository for waste management. Now, the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository is being built and the process of burying nuclear waste is projected to begin in 2020. It is based on the Swedish KBS-3 method of nuclear waste burial. Ironically, the Swedish have not begun construction on their own spent fuel repository. The company handling it, SKB, have applied for permission to construct and have been reviewed both by the government and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (the latter’s final report giving a favourable opinion). Right now, more documentation is being prepared for the government’s approval and more consultation with concerned municipalities that have the right to veto on the matter will follow.

Rationalisation

All of this shows nuclear waste disposal is a multifaceted, complex process but is well-established and robust as well. As before, political and social misconceptions have established nuclear waste as too difficult to handle whereas for over half-a-century, it has been dealt with quite well. In this regard, let us first establish how much waste the technology produces. If electricity was provided through nuclear fission alone, only 40 g of fuel per person is produced. For coal and fossil fuel-heavy energy production, CO­­2 emissions alone runs in tonnes per capita. This is not inclusive of particulate matter generation, toxic emissions and other environmental pollutants such as sulfur dioxide.

Renewables similarly result in a lot of waste. Solar photovoltaics panels, while not producing much waste during operation, may leak toxic chemicals in landfills whereas recycling the materials making them up needs to be studied further for economic feasibility. Wind turbines also produce wastes not only at the end-of-life due to the material that goes into making them (steel and copper to rare-earth metals like neodymium) but also from mining. Moreover, due to the scale of renewables needed, this waste production has the possibility to balloon out of proportion.

This is not to disparage renewable energy. In fact, I remain a strong proponent of renewables over fossil fuels and coal. But denying the viability of nuclear energy is lying to one self. It is wrong and misleading when even the most contentious problem with it, that of nuclear waste production, is not only manageable but is flexible enough to include both temporary and permanent disposal techniques, each robust enough to last for decades if not millennia. What we need is political and social awakening to the obvious.

Recommendations and Final Word

My recommendations? Alongside investing in nuclear power, we should build for ourselves nuclear waste management facilities including processing plants and disposal repositories. It remains to be seen if a site with the proper features for deep geological disposal is available in Malaysia, but with the Titiwangsa Range and various others like it especially in East Malaysia, the prospects seem positive. Moreover, whatever overdesign of the disposal sites could also be taken advantage of by accepting nuclear waste from other countries that may not have these facilities, especially for permanent disposal. The economic benefits are substantially large. Whilst dealing with the total radioactive waste in the world proactively, we may also make some money in the process. Truly a win-win situation. In any case, permanent waste disposal can be thoroughly studied as its necessity can be delayed for decades due to thorough temporary storage technologies currently available.

I wonder how many of you find the last paragraph unpalatable. When every day we waste fighting nuclear power, more people get lung cancer or other respiratory ailments from particulate matter in the flue gas of coal-fired power plants. Every night we scare ourselves to sleep to nightmares of fallout, more and more CO­2 is pumped into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. Fossil fuels continue to reign as renewables have not caught up to their scale yet. Crops fail, fish die, extreme weather events get more and more frequent, all because we turn away from a mature, well-understood technology that improves exponentially as time goes on. Those of you who oppose nuclear energy, know this. The lives lost due to your fragile disposition fall upon your head. Are you well-informed enough to shoulder that responsibility?

(Featured Image from Harvard University)

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3 thoughts on “Managing Nuclear Waste

  1. Whilst you have valid points about coal and natural gas being contributors to carbon emissions into the atmosphere and with especially coal being dirty and potentially injurious to public health, however why are you so oppose to renewables such as wind and solar-generated electricity, which are still emerging and developing technologies, whilst being so gung ho about nuclear energy which no doubt will be low on CO2 emissions, air ane environmental pollution as long as all goes well but can be a lingering disaster for years if not decades when things go wrong, as in the case of Chernobyl and Fukushima.

    If the numbers of electric vehicles increases as the technologies improve, the more electric vehicles will shift demand for petroleum, a fossil fuel, from the vehicles’ fuel tanks to electricity power stations, about 38% of which worldwide currently burn coal as their primary fuel source, followed by another fossil fuel, natural gas.

    So if we can employ more less CO2 or CO2-free primary sources for electricity generation, that would be great and especially so if they are renewables where practically possible, including mature hydroelectric power, geothermal which is pretty limited or wind and solar which currently gaining ground and operational in several countries.

    Whilst we should be justifiably sceptical of every so called “expert” who take the side of some technology or other, in this presentation arguing in favour of wind and solar energy, Marin Katusa of Katusa Research presents some interesting figures about wind and solar-electric power (excluding rooftop solar), which show that consumption of nuclear-electric power in North America has remained at 18% of total electricity consumption in 2006and 2016, whilst the proportion of renewables-generated electricity has grown from a mere 3% to 14% in the same period. Katusa goes on to present other figures related to dramatically lower average total cost (to build and operate) electricity generation facilities powerd by various primary energy sources over the lifetime of the facilities – i.e. their levelised cost of energy (LCOE).

    Sure, you have every justification to criticise Mahathir over his choice for Malaysia to revert to polluting coal and denounce his dismissal of nuclear energy as an option for Malaysia, and whilst latter-day designs of nuclear power stations may be relatively safe compared to Chernobyl and Fukushima, especially with the lessons learned, however, are the facilities to safely store nuclear waste long term developed well enough and moreover, where is Malaysia going to cite them in our small country, where they will be far away enough from populated areas to be relatively safe for humans, water sources, food supply and so forth?

    Yes, Malaysia’s small size and other factors such as consitency of wind velocities pose problems as to where we can place solar farms and wind turbines but we can still explore these options, including rooftop solar panels in all housing estates, as well as wind turbines along the coast or up our hills.

    These may not be enough to supply all of Malaysia’s electricity needs but they could contribute significantly to our needs.

    For Malaysia, the choice of best mix of primary energy sources for electricity generation should be based upon the material realities of the Malaysian scenario.

    Let us avoid technology wars, which I am only too familiar with in the ICT industry in the over 20 years I have been writing about it.

    For instance the technology war in teh 2000s between industry bodies, the WiMAX Forum and the 3G Partnership Project (3Gpp) which the 3Gpp finally won due to the incumbent technology having a more well established ecosystem, despite whatever claims WiMAX’s proponents made about its superiority back then over 3Gpp technologies such as 3G at the time.

    In the consumer space today, we have the technology war between Apple iOS and Android on mobile smartphones and tablet devices.

    Going back to the late 1990s ad 2000s, there was the technology war between PalmOS and Windows CE based PDAs.

    In 2004, I attended a conference on the use of ICT in medicine and in one session on use of PDAs by physicians for medical purposes, the doctors became like children arguing over the relative merits of PalmOS versus Microsoft Windows CE, Windows Phone, etc. And let’s not forget the technology war between Windows-based PCs and Apple Macs.

    Whilst I am a Linux user and have been part of the war between proprietary and free and open source software, however I recognise that at the end of the day, most end-users do not share the polemics between proprietary and FOSS camps and are just interested in using their tool to get their work done as soon as possible and if it requires having to go through a slight learning curve to get up to speed with using LibreOffice to rite a document as fast as they could using Microsoft Office, most end-users will revert back to using what they are most familiar with.

    Let’s face it, all these technology wars are between parties, including scientists, developers and companies seeking opportunities to advance their profession or to sell more of their products, aided by public relations companies, the ICT media and ICT journalists who take sides for whatever reason, including technology-fandom, to appear hip, idealism or for mercenary reasons (journo-prostitution).

    Apple is not any less capitalist than Microsoft, though some hip, hype and happening lefties seem to think so, whilst the anarcho-libertarian, communitarian free and open source software (FOSS) movement would balk at being regraded as “socialist” or “communist”.

    In fact, many capitalist software companies such as Red Hat, Canonical and so forth sponsor and partake in independent FOSS software development communities because they can take the best products from the ferment to include in their commercial versions of FOSS software to make money. Note that Google’s proprietary Android phone and device OS is based upon the community developed Debian Linux.

    The GNU General Public License and the many other FOSS licences are not “socialist” or “anti-capitalist” but just a means to prevent proprietary control of software developed communally and to keep it free for developers to use, modify and develop, much like proprietary software was in the early days of computing, where most of the value in computers sold was in their hardware, so the operating system or software was just including as an accompanying accessory.

    Such licenses will become irrelevant under socialism, in which software is socially owned and can be given away free to users, irrespective of whether its open source or closed source, hence the open source, closed source, free or proprietary issue becomes irrelevant under socialism.

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