· There are a number of pervasive myths regarding both radiation and radioactive wastes.
· Some lead to regulation and actions which are counterproductive to human health and safety.
Over the years, many views and concerns have been expressed in the media, by the public and other interested groups in relation to the nuclear industry and in particular its waste. Questions have been raised about whether nuclear power should continue when the issue of how to deal with its waste has apparently not yet been resolved.
Some views and concerns include:
· 1. The nuclear industry still has no solution to the 'waste problem', so cannot expect support for construction of new plants until this is remedied.
· 2. The transportation of this waste poses an unacceptable risk to people and the environment.
· 3. Plutonium is the most dangerous material in the world.
· 4. There is a potential terrorist threat to the large volumes of radioactive wastes currently being stored and the risk that this waste could leak or be dispersed as a result of terrorist action.
· 5. Nuclear wastes are hazardous for tens of thousands of years. This clearly is unprecedented and poses a huge threat to our future generations.
· 6. Even if put into a geological repository, the waste might emerge and threaten future generations.
· 7. Man-made radiation differs from natural radiation.
· 8. Nobody knows the true costs of waste management. The costs are so high that nuclear power can never be economic.
· 9. Nuclear waste should be transmuted into harmless materials.
1. The nuclear industry still has no solution to the 'waste problem'.
Many people quite reasonably feel that the nuclear industry shouldn't continue operation without having a solution for the disposal of its radioactive waste. However, the industry has in fact developed the necessary technologies and implemented most of them - the remaining issue is to ensure that the proposed solutions are acceptable to the public.
Today, safe management practices are implemented or planned for all categories of radioactive waste. Low-level waste (LLW) and most intermediate-level waste (ILW), which make up most of the volume of waste produced (97%), are being disposed of securely in near-surface repositories in many countries so as to cause no harm or risk in the long-term. This practice has been carried out for many years in many countries as a matter of routine.
High-level waste (HLW) is currently safely contained and managed in interim storage facilities. The amount of HLW produced (including used fuel when this is considered a waste) is in fact small in relation to other industry sectors. HLW is currently increasing by about 12,000 tonnes worldwide every year, which is the equivalent of a two-storey structure built on a basketball court or about 100 double-decker buses and is modest compared with other industrial wastes. The use of interim storage facilities currently provides an appropriate environment in which to contain and manage this amount of waste. These facilities also allow for the heat and radioactivity of the waste to decay prior to long-term geological disposal. In fact, after 40 years there is only about one thousandth as much radioactivity as when the reactor is switched off to unload the used fuel. Interim storage provides an appropriate means of storing used fuel until a time when that country has sufficient fuel to make a repository development economic.
In the long-term however, appropriate disposal arrangements are required for HLW, due to its prolonged radioactivity. Disposal solutions are currently being developed for HLW that are safe, environmentally sound and publicly acceptable. The solution that is widely accepted as feasible is deep geological disposal, and repository projects are well advanced in some countries, such as Finland, Sweden and the USA. In fact, in the USA a deep geological waste repository (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) is already in operation in New Mexico for the disposal of transuranic waste (long-lived ILW contaminated with military materials such as plutonium), although Nevada is showing classic Nimby resistance to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository. These countries have demonstrated that political and public acceptance issues at a community and national level can be met.
The nuclear industry therefore has clearly defined waste disposal methods for all waste produced and is making progress in many countries to achieve public acceptance of the approved programmes. It is important that other governments in nuclear energy-producing countries now follow the lead set by these countries on the issue of long-term disposal of high-level radioactive waste.
With the availability of technologies and the continued progress being made to develop publicly acceptable sites, it is logical that construction of new nuclear facilities can continue. Nuclear energy has distinct environmental advantages over fossil fuels. As well as containing and managing virtually all its wastes, nuclear power stations do not cause any pollution. The fuel for nuclear power is virtually unlimited, considering both geological and technological aspects. There is plenty of uranium in the Earth's crust and furthermore, well-proven (but not yet fully economic) technology means that we can extract about 60 times as much energy from it as we do today. The safety record of nuclear energy is better than for any major industrial technology. All these benefits should be taken into account when considering the construction of new facilities.