What Should I Know About Nuclear Waste Management?

Adam Hill

Nearly every known technology for generating energy produces some sort of pollution or waste in the process, and nuclear energy is no exception. While it offers significant advantages, nuclear energy produces waste that is potentially very dangerous if mishandled. Nuclear waste management is an essential part of the future ability of the United States to meet its energy needs. Individual nuclear power plants have their own ways to temporarily manage nuclear waste, and nuclear waste management is being undertaken on a national scale in the form of the Yucca Mountain Repository and other proposals.

A nuclear power plant.
A nuclear power plant.

A nuclear power plant uses radioactive elements to heat water, which in turn produces steam to run large steam turbines which produce electricity. This radioactive fuel is used in the form of rods, which eventually lose some of their radioactivity, and therefore their ability to power the nuclear facility. Even though these fuel rods are not as radioactive as before, they are still unsafe, and must be prevented from coming into contact with unprotected personnel at the plants.

A sign indicating radioactivity.
A sign indicating radioactivity.

Small-scale nuclear waste management is usually done in an on-site facility where the rods are placed in containers which are located under a significant depth of water. The water keeps radiation from being emitted at harmful levels, and also keeps the rods cool. Many nuclear facilities are running low on storage space for this spent nuclear material, and this has prompted action by the United States Department of Energy (DOE), with the goal of finding a large-scale solution to nuclear waste management. In 1987, the DOE proposed the Yucca Mountain site in the Nevada desert as the location of a nuclear waste storage facility.

The future of the Yucca Mountain Repository will depend on the future political climate of the United States. It was conceived as a site to transport nuclear waste to, where it would be stored deep in the mountain, in such a way that harmful radiation would never escape. The waste was to be transported in steel and concrete casks over roads and rails to the site from all over the country.

The casks, which are currently used for storage in some facilities, are quite an engineering accomplishment on their own. They have been designed and constructed to withstand devastating impacts and extremely high temperatures -- in other words, the worst possible conditions they could experience on the road or on trains. Despite these types of preparations, popular controversy and political action have complicated the process of finding a solution to nuclear waste management that would be agreeable to all involved.

The disposal of nuclear and radioactive waste poses challenges around the world.
The disposal of nuclear and radioactive waste poses challenges around the world.

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Discussion Comments

anon34893

how is nuclear waste formed?

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