Nuclear Waste Nuclear waste is one of the most pressing and provocative environmental issues of our time. This radioactive waste, which remains deadly for thousands of years, is incredibly difficult to deal with. Unfortunately, time is running short for a solution, as a growing number of reactors, (111 in the United States alone), radioactive remnants of Cold War weapons, and increasing medical uses of radioactivity will soon create enough waste to exceed the current holding capacity for radioactive materials. There are two types of nuclear waste. The first is low-level radioactive waste, which contains small amounts of radioactivity. This sort of waste usually comes from medical facilities and pharmaceutical companies and includes clothing, test tubes, and all kinds of diagnostic waste.
The other kind, which is of most concern, is high-level radioactive waste, which is created when reactor fuel is mined and processed and when atoms are split in reactors. This "hot" waste includes spent uranium fuel rods and the liquid waste produced when those rods are dissolved in acid to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. Disposing of low-level waste presents difficulties, but not insurmountable ones. As of now, it is shipped to special disposal sites in the United States. Expected ly, the public is not pleased to have any type of radioactive waste in their own backyards, even the relatively harmless low-level trash. The main obstacle in dealing with this type is to educate the public, which tends to equate anything radioactive with that of the highly dangerous, nuclear fuel cycle variety.
Without good information, the people will always fear anything remotely connected with nuclear power and will continue to incorrectly liken what goes o in an X-ray laboratory with what goes on in a plutonium bomb. Of far more concern is how to dispose of the high-level radioactive waste. This problem has plagued scientists and politicians since the beginning of the nuclear age. "Hot" waste contaminates the earth, the water, the air, and even minute amounts of it can be extremely poisonous to humans.
Short of abolishing nuclear waste altogether, it looks like there is little that can be done about the growing accumulation of nuclear waste. Scientists are doing what they can to deal with the problem, although the solutions are admittedly not long-term ones. Currently, "hot" waste is stored near the reactors and weapons plants that make it. Used fuel rods are kept in pools of circulating water and liquid waste in steel tanks that are buried below the ground. Some of the less radioactive liquid waste is mixed with concrete and made into blocks, which are buried under clay and planted over. Wastes have sometimes been encased in metal drums lined with concrete and dumped into the sea, at times dumped without any packaging at all.
A few countries recycle the fuel to recover plutonium, which can be used as reactor fuel. Each of these methods has drawbacks. Drums have leaked and contaminated surrounding land. Storing fuel rods in pools is only a temporary measure, and the pumps and filters required can malfunction.
Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions can damage buried drums, break the concrete, and release radioactive material into the soil and groundwater. This groundwater can also serve to free wastes by corroding metal containers of nuclear waste, mixing with it and leaching into soil and streams. Recycling waste for plutonium is costly, complex, and still leaves behind waste. Worse still, large-scale recycling could lead to trade in plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The question of how to deal with nuclear waste is an extremely difficult one, but it must be dealt with. Certainly, nuclear waste must be disposed of somewhere, and the longer we wait, the more formidable the task becomes. What is needed is more study on how radioactive elements behave, hopefully enough to solve this most urgent environmental problem.