Interesting Facts About Nuclear Waste

Interesting Facts About Nuclear Waste

Recently, Bill Gates was in the news again. But this time it was for his joint venture with Warren Buffett to build a nuclear reactor in Wyoming. TerraPower, owned by Gates and PacifiCorp, a Buffett company, chose to build the reactor at a closed coal mine site. This reactor will be using new technology in a sodium reactor and a molten-salt energy storage system. It seems like a great idea on the surface. A carbon-free power source that would replace a dinosaur of a carbon emitter. Looks can be deceiving. Here are some interesting facts about nuclear waste you probably did not know.

Salt Mines

Closed salt mines are used to store and contain “long-lived” materials. They come from nuclear reactors, contaminated equipment, and the materials used to clean or decommissioned weapons facilities. Germany was home to three salt repositories. Two are now closed and the third was investigated for safety reasons. States on the radar for prospective salt repositories are Texas, Louisiana, Michigan, and Mississippi.

Carlsbad, New Mexico

Carlsbad is home to a myriad of passageways, deep underground within a 250-million-year-old salt deposit that has been home to radioactive waste for decades. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), which opened in 1999, holds more than 85,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste. The plant places containers in openings dug into the salt formations, and over time, the idea is that the salt will settle around the containers and “seal” them. WIPP has become the de facto central repository for the U.S., and officials closely monitor Carlsbad’s air quality. Only once has radioactive iodine been detected in the atmosphere – in 2011 – from the Fukushima disaster. However, the intention was never to make WIPP a permanent operation.

Waste without a home

In 2011, the U.S. had 65 nuclear power plants with no permanent storage facilities for the 67,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. Instead, these sites have “interim storage” at or near their locations. That is a ton of unsecured waste sitting around the U.S. Hanford Nuclear Reservation is a prime example of interim storage. The site made the news in 2017 when Hanford declared an emergency after a portion of an underground tunnel containing rail cars of nuclear waste collapsed.

There are many public discussions regarding the benefits of nuclear energy, but few public conversations about the environmental impact it generates. In 2013, an updated draft of a bill to create a new government organization to specifically deal with nuclear waste was sent to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Another updated draft in April of 2019 was presented. Unfortunately, it appears there is no clear resolution on what to do with the waste generated from nuclear energy.  

Seeing mining resources closed forever is sad

Mining has had a history of closures and reopening over the decades. However, with shuttered mines becoming targets for nuclear waste storage, it creates a scenario of lost future resources; these are resources that we will never get back.

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