We just avoided nuclear disaster. If we don’t act now, we may not be able to avoid the next one.

Don’t pop the balloon.
Don’t pop the balloon.
Image: Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay
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I am in awe of the periodic table. But if you stood me in front of a tank containing all the elements on the table, I would recoil in shock and horror. That’s because the tank would contain not just carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus, but also plutonium, uranium, and every other radioactive element. At the US Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, there are 177 tanks of chemicals containing almost the whole periodic table—including 500 kg of plutonium.

Last week, the whole site—which converted uranium to plutonium for atomic bombs during the Cold War but now exclusively acts as a storage facility for nuclear waste—was put on lockdown after one of the tunnels containing highly contaminated waste collapsed. Luckily, analysis showed radioactive waste hadn’t become airborne and contractors quickly filled the tunnel—one of 1,000 places in the 586 sq mile (1,500 sq km) area that is known to hold some form of nuclear waste.

Even then, the collapse made international news because Hanford experts had long expected a disaster to happen any day. The mishandling of nuclear waste at the site and the ongoing clean-up delays make Hanford one of the riskiest places on Earth. Two whistleblowers, who were employees of companies tasked with cleaning up “the most polluted site in the western hemisphere,” say that Hanford could become America’s Fukushima.

Hanford’s challenges are great because of the sheer amount and complexity of the waste it stores, but every country with any nuclear waste struggles to deal with it one way or another. Although nuclear reactors—both for creating weapons and for generating power—have been operating since the 1940s, there is still no place in the world where the radioactive waste produced in the process can be stored permanently and safely.

Radioactive math

A 2016 report from the European Commission found that the cost of disposing nuclear waste and decommissioning plants for its 16 member nations far outstripped the money allocated towards it. The bill is expected to be more than €250 billion ($280 billion), but only €120 billion is available. Worse still, the continent doesn’t have enough decommissioning know-how (paywall).

Ted Nordhaus, director of research at the Breakthrough Institute, says that people confuse the nuclear weapons industry, which has failed to address its waste problem, with the nuclear power industry, which has more stringent regulation in place to better manage waste. “Neither the physics nor the technologies are the same, nor are the institutions that manage the two technologies,” he writes.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington.
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington.
Image: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Indeed, the nuclear waste from weapons development is more complex than that from spent fuel in a power plant. But it isn’t always true that different bodies handle these different wastes.

The UK’s Sellafield site has tasked a single company with cleaning up waste both from the Cold-War era weapons program and from the site’s decommissioned nuclear power plant. There are some 13,000 workers on the 2.3 sq mile (6 sq km) site, and it has been plagued with safety concerns for decades. The clean-up of the site is supposed to take more than 100 years and cost the UK government in excess of £120 billion ($156 billion).

What Nordhaus is correct about is that we understand fairly well how to process and securely store most of the waste generated by the power industry.

No resting place

About 90% of the new waste generated from power plants combined is responsible for only 1% of the total radioactivity generated by nuclear power waste, which means it can be safely put in landfills or incinerated. At the next level up in terms of radioactivity, around 7% of nuclear power plant waste is responsible for about 4% of all radioactivity, and usually it can be solidified in concrete and stored away.

The remaining tiny but highly toxic fraction can be turned into glass and stored in safe underground deposits for thousands of years. The trouble is that, despite decades of work, there is no large, dedicated underground site ready for storing this most toxic fraction.

Finland has the only one already under construction, but it won’t be ready until 2023. France has selected a site and construction is due to start next year. The US spent $15 billion on selecting a site in the Yucca Mountains, but then suspended its plans. Governments in the UK, Japan, Canada, and Germany are all on the lookout for sites. Even after selection, the site requires intense study and most importantly agreement from the nearby community to let it be used for the purpose. At the current rate of progress then, none of these countries are likely to have dedicated underground storage until the 2040s.

“Nuclear waste processing is an extremely complicated technical problem,” says John McCloy of Washington State University. “We haven’t fully cracked it yet, partly because there hasn’t been stable funding for research and partly because of misaligned incentives of companies tasked with the job of clean up.”

The atomic bomb changed the course of human history. Sadly, the fallout continues. The urgency to deal with nuclear waste has always been high, and the only thing that might make it more urgent is a disaster. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. For the last many decades, nuclear power has generated energy with zero carbon emissions. We will need more of it, if we are to reduce our emissions and mitigate global warming.