Nagra’s decision is causing ripples in Switzerland. We show how other countries are tackling the problem.
Ever since we started using nuclear power, the question has remained: What to do with toxic waste? Switzerland is not the only country producing energy through nuclear power.
What types of radioactive waste are there?
Each country categorizes its waste materials differently. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recognizes the following categories:
Low levels of radioactive waste are practically non-radioactive. They arise in hospitals, laboratories, industry and at the start of the fuel cycle. These are not radioactive themselves. Rather, they are objects that have come into contact at some point with radioactive material, such as equipment, clothing, or equipment from a nuclear power plant. Low-level radioactive waste makes up 90% of debris, but only 1% is radioactive.
Intermediate radioactive waste Must be protected during high activity and handling. They are formed, for example, in ion exchange resins that clean water flowing through a reactor. Some parts of the power plant also become radioactive as a result of the operation. This type of radioactive waste is sealed in containers encased in cement or bitumen to protect it from radiation. Intermediate radioactive waste consists of 7% waste and 4% radioactivity.
Highly radioactive waste Consists mainly of spent nuclear fuel from a nuclear reactor. These also generate heat due to decay heat. Because of their long-term hazardous potential, these wastes should be disposed of in deep geological repositories that allow the contents to degrade before they interact with the biosphere. How long this takes depends on the type of fuel and its reprocessing method. Highly radioactive waste contains 3% of waste and 95% of all radioactivity.
In total, more than 30 countries operate more than 440 nuclear reactors worldwide. But only four of these countries have repositories for high-level radioactive waste: the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – the latter two as a result of the Chernobyl accident.
It is an internationally recognized principle enshrined in international law that each country should dispose of its own waste.
“It is an internationally recognized principle enshrined in international law that each country should dispose of its own waste,” explains Roman Meyer, Deputy Director of the Federal Office of Energy. With this principle, each country went its own way.
The United States has the only repository currently operating for high-level radioactive waste: the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. However, the plant is used exclusively to dispose of waste from military nuclear applications. It is a deposit mine developed in a salt formation at a depth of about 650 meters. Operations started in 1999.
What types of storage technologies are available?
Long term interim savings It is the only high-level civil waste disposal option currently in operation. Toxic wastes are not stored deep in the ground, but are accessible on the surface. This is of particular interest to countries where the amount of intermediate and high-level radioactive waste is too small to economically justify the operation of a repository mine.
Storage tunnels State-of-the-art disposal of hazardous chemical or nuclear wastes. The long-term safety of the reservoir is tested based on inspection drilling. In addition to the analysis of the isolated rock section, possible rock uplift and collapse, fault and fracture tectonics, seismicity, volcanism, as well as erosion and subduction at the site during the isolation period should be investigated.
Deep wells are coming back into focus due to advances in drilling technology. A borehole is dug several kilometers deep into the ground. After lining, the hole may be about 5 km deep, with a waste plume filled with radioactive waste up to about 2 km high. The remaining space up to the surface is covered with compacted backfill, asphalt and concrete. Depending on the state of the art and current conditions and cost structures, disposal in deep boreholes is an alternative to repository mining.
The United States, with its 92 nuclear power plants, has the world’s largest nuclear industry and absolutely needs a repository for high-level radioactive waste from civilian use. The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in the Nevada desert has long been planned. However, the program was terminated in 2011 for political reasons under the Obama administration.
But the region is also geologically controversial: Climate change is leading to a more humid climate there, and the region is prone to seismic activity, such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Additionally, the resulting debris is more than Yucca Mountain can accommodate. The status of the project is currently open: All US states – except Nevada – are in favor of completing the repository.
Russia also has a proud inventory with its 38 nuclear reactors. While not dumping its radioactive waste into the Arctic Ocean, the Soviet Union preferred borewells as a disposal solution.
Since 1957, radioactive waste has been dumped at depths of 400 to 1400 meters at three locations in Russia (Krasnoyarsk-26, Tomsk-7, Dmitrovgrad). Drilling holes were all closed in 2011. No Russian repository is currently operational or planned.
Finland is the first country to operate a repository mine for civilian radioactive waste. Construction has been underway since 2004 and operations are expected to begin later this decade. The Finns rest on granite at a depth of 420 meters under the Olkiluto Peninsula. A similar project is planned in Sweden. The project was interrupted due to additional clarifications. However, in the two Scandinavian countries, there was no opposition from the people.
A nuclear-powered repository is also to be built in France. There are almost 90 residents living in Buer, Lorraine, and they have agreed to build a repository at a depth of 500 meters. As in the Swiss project, the host rock here is a layer of clay more than 100 m thick. But some scientists express safety concerns about noise and continued protests from the public.
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