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Interstellar disposal v deep burial: solving the nuclear waste problem

Interstellar disposal v deep burial: solving the nuclear waste problem

On 9th March 2022, the European Commission (EC) gave its much-anticipated verdict on nuclear energy’s green credentials. Nuclear power generation, the EC declared, “can contribute to the decarbonisation of the [European] Union’s economy.” In effect, the decision judged nuclear power to be environmentally sustainable, and opened the door to investment in next generation nuclear power stations.

Read also: Unlocking decarbonisation – the rise of cheap, clean energy

The move is part of a growing trend, as governments turn t o nuclear in the face of worries over energy security and increasingly urgent net-zero targets. Earlier this year, former UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK would increase investment in the sector, aiming for nuclear to provide 25% of the nation’s electricity generation. US President Joe Biden plans to spend USD 6 billion to save nuclear power stations that are at risk of closure. President Macron has promised “the rebirth of France’s nuclear industry”. and in unexpected U-turn after the Fukushima disaster, Japan has pledged to restart its idled nuclear power plants and look into the feasibility of developing next-gen reactors1. Around the world more than 50 reactors are currently under construction, 90 are on order or planned, and over 300 more are proposed2.

…the EC declared “[nuclear power generation] can contribute to the decarbonisation of the [European] Union’s economy

Not everyone is on the same page, however. Despite the fact that nuclear emits near-to-zero greenhouse gases, the EC decision proved controversial. Austria’s energy and climate minister, Leonore Gewessler, described the move as “greenwashing”, and threatened legal action. Several EU governments warned they would vote against the move.

Building nuclear power stations is expensive and time-consuming – opponents of the EC decision argued that the money would be better spent on rolling out renewables now, not in building power stations that are unlikely to come online for a decade. Then there’s the problem of the waste. Since domestic nuclear power generation began in the 1950s, a quarter of a million tonnes of highly radioactive spent fuel rods have accumulated.

And the few realistic options for dealing with them are technically challenging, costly, and unpopular with local communities.

Read also: Stock market returns and the energy crisis

Not everyone is on the same page, however…opponents of the EC decision argued that the money would be better spent on rolling out renewables now

Recycling’s hard stop

On the Cotentin Peninsula in Northern France sits the La Hague nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, home to nearly half the world’s civil nuclear recycling capacity. For nearly 50 years La Hague has been recycling spent nuclear fuel, taking in waste from as far afield as Australia and China. 

In most nuclear reactors a fuel rod becomes “spent” when just 4% of the uranium it contains has undergone the fission process, the atom-splitting moment that gives off huge amounts of energy and renders the uranium dangerously unstable. This leaves 96% of the material recoverable. To date, the La Hague centre has recycled 34,000 tonnes of nuclear waste, enough to power France’s nuclear stations for more than 20 years3.

To date, the La Hague centre has recycled 34,000 tonnes of nuclear waste, enough to power France’s nuclear stations for more than 20 years

Recycling nuclear waste is inherently risky – in the US, regulations have effectively outlawed civil nuclear waste reprocessing altogether. It also, as yet, has no answer to the remaining 4%, the highly radioactive spent and unrecyclable uranium fuel that will remain dangerous for at least the next several hundred thousand years. At La Hague this leftover element is vitrified – mixed with molten glass – before being poured into stainless steel canisters and put into storage. Where it sits, waiting for someone to work out what to with it.

Read also: Can plastic-eating enzymes solve the recycling problem?

 

Shoot for the moon

In May of 1978 a NASA technical study explored the possibility of sending nuclear waste into space4. Options included leaving waste in orbit around the moon, having it land softly on the moon’s surface, or setting it on collision course with the sun. Technical Paper 1225 concluded, “the disposal of…high-level nuclear waste in space appears to be feasible from a technical standpoint.” However, the report warned, “subsystem failures could leave the waste package in an unplanned orbit from which it must be recovered,” and, “a re-entry protection system would be required in case of catastrophic abort prior to achieving Earth orbit.”

In the 70-year search for solutions scientists have considered a number of other left-field solutions… These have included placing nuclear waste onto Antarctic ice sheets… placing waste beneath shifting tectonic plates in the earth’s crust…

In the 70-year search for solutions scientists have considered a number of other left-field solutions. These have included placing nuclear waste onto Antarctic ice sheets, where it’s hoped that over time the waste will sink by its own heat until it reaches bedrock. And placing waste beneath shifting tectonic plates in the earth’s crust, in the hope that as one plate moves beneath another, the waste will be pulled down into the earth’s core.

A nuclear graveyard

Today, consensus is coalescing around deep burial as the safest long-term solution. The technical difficulties for this are significant – so, too, are the political obstacles. In 1987, the US Congress chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada for the construction of the world’s first ever geological repository – or deep burial site – for nuclear waste. The decision was met with immediate opposition from local communities, environmental activists and state politicians, and twenty-three years later, after USD 15 billion had already been spent, the project was shelved.

Today, consensus is coalescing around deep burial as the safest long-term solution

A similar scene is being played out in the tiny French village of Bure, where work is planned on a deep burial site to house all of France’s nuclear waste. Bure has become an unlikely centre of anti-nuclear protest, and local mayor Gerard Antoine says he regrets his decision to approve the installation of nuclear test facilities two decades ago. Despite strong opposition, the French government is vowing to press ahead with the project.

Read also: Green hydrogen: the key to decarbonising heavy industry

In 2023 [Finland] will become the world’s first ever permanent geological repository for high-level nuclear waste

Finland’s “Onkalo” deep burial project has had an easier passage. In 2023 it will become the world’s first ever permanent geological repository for high-level nuclear waste, which will be buried half a kilometre deep in bedrock that has remained stable for millions of years. On the island of Olkiluoto, where the repository is located, locals are supportive – the project promises to bring jobs and provide long-term tax income for the municipality.

In 1976, the UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution stated, “it would be morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of [nuclear] power…unless it has been demonstrated that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future.” Over the next decade, all eyes will be on Finland to see if they have found the answer.


 

Japan Returns to Nuclear Power Over Energy Crisis (foreignpolicy.com)
Plans for New Nuclear Reactors Worldwide - World Nuclear Association (world-nuclear.org)
Orano la Hague; France's Efficiency in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: What Can 'Oui' Learn? | IAEA
Nuclear waste disposal in space (stanford.edu)

Important information

This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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