Nuclear Waste – Why it’s not such a problem (yet)

Until recent decades, nuclear power was confidently seen as the way of the future.  With a single ton of Uranium capable of producing as much energy as a thousand tons of coal it offered the potential of incredible amounts of power in exchange for a minimum amount of pollution. 

It was widely touted as clean i.e. emission free owing to the fact that unlike coal or oil, it did not belch huge amounts of poisonous gases into the atmosphere. Some pollution was inevitable of course – Uranium, like coal or oil had to be extracted industrially from the ground which is never a pollution free endeavour.   But compared to fossil fuels, Governments of the 50’s and 60’s were confident that the power of the atom was the wave of the future. And for those involved in cleaning in radioactive messes, it seemed to be a good time to invest in a thick rubber suit and gloves. 

The Problem of Nuclear Environmental Waste

Even from its inception, nuclear power has resulted in unique challenges.  Chief among these is what to do with the waste product of the nuclear fission process.  Nuclear waste, though produced in a tiny fraction of the amount produced by fossil fuels, is highly radioactive and thus incredibly dangerous to people and the environment.  

Spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors have to be encased in thick containers of concrete and steel for transport to a storage site.  The global consensus for nuclear nations around the world is that nuclear waste should be stored deep underground in purposefully constructed underground vaults where it can safely decay.  However, to this date no government has built a proper disposal facility of this type for nuclear waste.

Changing Opinions

Confidence in nuclear power has been shaken over the years by various well publicised disasters.  The partial melt-down of the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island in the United States in the 70’s, but it was the disaster at Chernobyl in the then USSR in 1986 that has become iconic of nuclear failure. 

Despite advances in reactor technology and power station staff training, disasters such as the Japanese Fukashima plant incident in 2011 have resulted in a global turn away from Nuclear power.  Countries that had previously used Nuclear power heavily in their electric plans such as Germany began to abandon and cancel the construction of new Nuclear plants and other nations such as Australia continue to remain nuclear free.

Furthermore, the ability to generate electricity from nuclear power is widely seen as a pre-requisite technology to later producing nuclear weapons as can be seen in recent controversy around Iran.  Nations already with nuclear capability are reluctant to encourage the proliferation of nuclear technology. 

Lastly nuclear power proliferation suffers because of the comparative cheapness still of fossil fuel power stations making it popular for many countries to stick to oil, gas and coal for their power needs.  Many nations are also increasingly preferring to explore the possibilities that renewable energy offers, rather than invest in expensive nuclear options.

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