Nuclear Waste

It would seem that mankind feels a need to always leave some kind of legacy, some kind of lasting trace. Sadly, it also seems that these influences are almost always very bad for where we leave them. This planet is incredibly polluted, and it is only getting worse, with associated woes such as global warming and population over-crowding only adding to the list.

Two of the most pressing concerns come tied together the energy problem and global warming. The paradox is thus; we need to reduce global warming, and to do so we have to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that we belch out from our factories, our cars and indeed our society in general. However, we also need to ensure that we produce enough energy, in the form of electricity to meet with our requirements. But conventional power plants burn fossil fuels, which then emit greenhouse gases. So it would appear that meeting one goal cannot be done without damaging the other.

Fortunately, there is a solution within our grasp. Since scientists first split the nucleus of the atom over 70 years ago, we have learned how to controllably release the fantastic amounts of energy bound up as matter inside atoms. Nuclear power plants utilise the process of nuclear fission; splitting heavy atoms such as Uranium to generate energy. Since you can generate massive amounts of energy this way, much much more than you could ever get by burning fuels, nuclear power plants seem to provide an answer to the increasing energy demands of the world. On top of this, they do not emit greenhouse gases, so they do not contribute to global warming and air pollution, making them seem to a very environmentally friendly option. The only problem with nuclear fission power is the waste that it produces. This waste is not only highly chemically toxic (i.e. If you ate it you would be poisoned), it is also radioactive. That means that it is still giving off energy, turning into other elements by a process known as radioactive decay. On a physical level, what is happening is that the atoms produced by nuclear fission in the splitting of a uranium nucleus are themselves unstable. That means that they break down after a period of time, measured as their half life (half life is the time it takes for 50% of a sample to decay). This process is still giving off energy even though we no longer consider the fuels useful for use in power plants. If you could hold a lump of Plutonium in your hand, a substance produced by Nuclear reactors, it would feel warm to the touch due to the energy released through radioactive decay (I say if because this would be a phenomenally bad idea, as you would then succumb to radiation poisoning within the week).

The process of radioactive decay means that we have to be very careful what we do with this highly toxic and hazardous waste. At present, we transport it to nuclear reprocessing facilities, such as Sellafield in the UK. Here, the radioactive substances are sealed in chemical proof containers, amongst other treatments, to help make them more safe, and then stored deep underground, in secure, concrete lined bunkers, away from humans and without any ability to cause harm to the environment around them. This is at present the best method of dealing with radioactive waste. The waste has a half life of hundreds of years, which means it must be stored for many generations before the radioactivity has decreased to such a level as to be safe. In fact, the greatest danger is that some of the toxic radioactive waste may fall into the hands of terrorists, who could then use this for great harm; for example to construct a ‘dirty bomb’. As a result, these sites are always heavily guarded. In conclusion, though it certainly has its disadvantages, nuclear power should be a major part of our energy strategies, and it should not be a problem provided that the waste is properly dealt with.