There Are Plans To Bury These Storage Containers Across The US – But They’re All Ticking Time Bombs

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All around the world, leaders have come up with proposals to bury special storage containers deep underground. Furthermore, the United States is just one of those nations looking at the long-term consequences of such an act. However, shocking new research has revealed that these vessels could potentially lead to catastrophe.

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As you might’ve guessed, these containers are designed to deal with the storage and burying of nuclear waste. You see, the United States seemingly wants to follow a similar blueprint as other nations. That is, its scientists intend to combine dangerous nuclear materials with lesser substances before placing them inside a steel vessel.

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Then, just to be on the safe side, these waste-filled containers would be buried far beneath the surface of the Earth. Sounds simple enough, you might say, but there’s a big problem. And if this plan is orchestrated without its issues ever being resolved, the consequences could prove devastating.

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But what exactly is nuclear waste and what does it look like? Certainly, we all have ideas about the stuff based on various pop culture depictions that have popped up over the years. Often in the media it appears as a sort of luminous, green sludge. But does that mirror reality? Well, not exactly.

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According to the United States’ Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), nuclear waste can be classified under two headings. Yes, the more hazardous materials, naturally, are termed as “high-level,” with the less dangerous leftovers being called “low-level.” Examples of low-level waste would be personal protective equipment, such as gloves or face masks, that have come into contact with radioactive material.

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In some cases, low-level nuclear waste can be dealt with quite simply. You see, sometimes it’s just a case of storing it in the very place where it was produced. Eventually, it’ll lose its radioactivity and can then be thrown away like any other piece of garbage. Other waste, however, must be taken to a purpose-built facility – for the good of, well, everybody.

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Because high-level waste is, as you might have gathered, more serious and requires a greater degree of consideration. Generally speaking, this designation is given to the fuel that’s been inside a nuclear reactor. Now, this fuel is extremely radioactive, accounting for the majority of the radioactivity linked to nuclear power as a whole.

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Furthermore, in spite of the cartoonish images of glow-in-the-dark sludge that we’ve become accustomed to, nuclear fuel is actually hard and sturdy. Indeed, it’s organized into what are known as “fuel assemblies,” which basically consist of metal cylinders containing bits of uranium. So it’s firm before it’s placed inside a nuclear reactor, and it stays that way when it’s removed.

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And surprisingly, volume wise, nuclear fuel doesn’t take up that much space at all. Imagine putting all the nuclear fuel created since the middle of the 20th century on a football field. You see, it would only cover that one field and go no more than 10 yards into the ground. For a sense of scale, the coal industry apparently produces a similar quantity of waste with each passing hour.

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Another important point about nuclear fuel is that it isn’t considered to be useless once it’s passed through a reactor. Yes, it’s possible in fact to strip this used fuel down and to reuse certain elements again down the line. This is actually done in certain countries, like, for instance, France.

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Of course, nuclear waste doesn’t just come from efforts to produce energy. No, the creation of nuclear weapons also leads to the accumulation of leftover materials. As you might imagine, this can be difficult to deal with due to the vast quantities involved. In fact, some nuclear leftovers created during the Cold War are still being dealt with in the present day.

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For you see, the development and production of nukes became less intense after the Cold War had finished. But a large amount of nuclear waste material had nonetheless already been created. And so nations turned their attention to trying to deal with all the hazardous materials that were left over.

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Two metals in particular are vital for the creation of the fuel which powers nuclear arms. These are uranium – which has the atomic number 92 – and plutonium – numbered 94. In fact, plutonium is made inside a nuclear reactor after neutrons are sent crashing into uranium cylinders.

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At each point that a uranium atom is converted into a plutonium one, neutrons are emitted. This happens again and again, causing a powerful reaction with massive levels of energy consequently being given off. Indeed, that’s why nuclear weapons can lead to such immense destruction after they have gone off.

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When most uranium atoms inside a nuclear reactor have been turned into plutonium, the powerful reaction gradually ceases. Once this has occurred, we can say that the cylinders which once held the uranium have been “spent.” In other words, there is little more that can be done, and they’re then taken out of the reactor.

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In the case of the post Cold War period, in order to deal with the leftover plutonium, nuclear technicians utilized acidic substances. Then they tried to dissolve the metal, and in doing so created huge quantities of dangerous liquid as a by-product. This was called “mixed waste” because it consisted of nasty chemicals and materials which exhibit radioactivity.

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Today, there are huge amounts of nuclear waste in America that need to be dealt with. As things stand, such waste tends to be held in the very place where it was first created. That is, it’s kept onsite at some 80 facilities located in most of the country’s states. In other words, there’s no permanent, singular site built specifically to handle this sort of waste.

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According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the amount of nuclear waste in America is more than 99,000 tons. And with nowhere permanent to put this, a precarious situation emerges. After all, if radioactive materials are subjected to natural events like an earthquake or flooding, the surrounding environment could end up becoming contaminated.

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Naturally, a place holding nuclear waste should be able to withstand shocks that might lead to radioactive material escaping. If water were to get inside, for example, it might then carry dangerous particles into surrounding areas. Furthermore, as common sense dictates, a secure site would also be safe from human interference.

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Now, since the 1980s a place in Nevada has been under consideration for becoming a permanent storage site. This is Yucca Mountain, a deserted area situated about a hundred miles outside of Las Vegas. And the region is very dry, so water shouldn’t pose as much of a problem here as in other locations.

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Anyway, it was in 1987 that the U.S. Department of Energy first started investigating Yucca Mountain as a potential site for holding nuclear waste. And it took around 15 years before a conclusion was drawn as to the place’s suitability, which occurred in 2002. Six years later, steps were taken to finally get the project going.

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However, numerous residents in Nevada believed that they had largely been ignored throughout the site selection process. And they were worried about the dangers such a facility might pose. So by 2010 the project came under political pressure and was withdrawn. Naturally, after this, the funding stopped and no one seemed to care for the plan.

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In any case, the United States is far from the only nation which has struggled with its nuclear waste disposal. Indeed, all over the world, debates have taken place to try and reach an overall solution. Yet only one country is presently in the midst of building a storage site for use over a long period.

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Yes, in the vicinity of Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant in western Finland, a facility is being built underground. And this is where the country plans to put its spent nuclear fuel, where it shall stay for a long time. When finished, it’ll be the only facility of its kind in the world.

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Now, this particular location was chosen over a long period of time, with investigations beginning in 1983. Then, during the 1990s, a total of four different sites were closely considered. Obviously the specifications of each site were put under scrutiny, and the people living in each area were consulted.

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And of course the Olkiluoto site was eventually selected, with work getting underway in 2004 through a company called Posiva. Then, toward the end of 2015, the Finnish government gave the company permission to launch the final stages of the project. As things stand, the facility should be operational by 2023.

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When the site is functional, fuel sent to the Olkiluoto site will be positioned inside steel vessels. These, in turn, will be put inside another container made of copper. Then, everything shall be placed inside a cavity. After that, this void will be filled in with a special sort of clay.

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Overall, it’s estimated, the facility in Olkiluoto has enough space to remain operational for almost a century. So, at some point close to 2120, the last bit of fuel shall be entombed and buried. After that, the whole place itself, as plans currently stand, would be sealed off and made inaccessible.

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As we mentioned earlier, this facility in Finland is the only one of its kind currently in the world. But other nuclear countries are looking along the same lines. And separately, the method for this storage process is likely to be globally adopted too. Namely, the dangerous materials will be combined with different kinds of substances so they turn into radioactive glass or ceramic. These will then be placed in steel containers and placed underground.

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However, new scientific research has highlighted a potential problem with this approach. And it could ultimately prove to be a big one. Indeed, the ramifications for the United States, or any other country, could be horrific. On that note, let’s take a closer look at the study.

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So the study appeared in a scientific journal called Nature Materials, which came out in late January 2020. And it was headed up by Xiaolei Guo, a prominent figure associated with Ohio State University and its College of Engineering. Furthermore, the U.S Department of Energy’s Office of Science contributed to the financing of the work.

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Now, the project focused on radioactive waste produced by nuclear weapons, so materials with long half-lives. This term refers to the amount of time it takes for radioactive elements to break down by 50 percent. For instance, things like plutonium are defined by half-lives which last for millennia.

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And when holding radioactive material with a significant half-life, it’s obviously important that a storage container itself can withstand a long time period. But according to Guo, the proposed steel containers are actually unsuitable. You see, it appears that they might break down quicker than initially thought.

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In a statement, Guo himself elaborated, “In the real-life scenario, the glass or ceramic waste forms would be in close contact with stainless steel canisters. Under specific conditions, the corrosion of stainless steel will go crazy. It creates a super-aggressive environment that can corrode surrounding materials.”

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To perform their study, the researchers created glass objects – similar to the radioactive ones which would go inside the storage containers. Then they put them in contact with steel and submerged them in a variety of chemicals for as long as a month. This was meant to mirror the conditions that one would expect to find at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, for example.

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This ultimately demonstrated that the glass and the steel interacted with one another under certain conditions. And they did so in a particularly worrying manner. More specifically, the steel corroded away in what the researchers deemed to be a “severe” case. As for the glass, cracks were recorded on the surface.

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And Guo himself has laid out exactly why this is such a problem. Put plainly, “This indicates that the current models may not be sufficient to keep this waste safely stored. And it shows that we need to develop a new model for storing nuclear waste.”

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Now, there’s actually quite a simple reason for this outcome. You see, steel is largely composed of iron, amongst other materials such as chromium and nickel. Glass, on the other hand, is made up of silicon. And silicon and iron react when they’ve been exposed to one another.

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What’s more, the researchers demonstrated that ceramics don’t fare much better than glass. You see, if the steel was pressed against ceramics whilst being exposed to specific conditions, the outcome was similarly bleak. That is, both the steel and the ceramics disintegrated in what was described as a “severe localized” manner.

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However, the plan to store nuclear waste in this way is not unsalvageable. Indeed, the researchers pointed out that there might be something simple which could resolve the issue. Yes, if an appropriate material was inserted between the steel and the glass/ceramics, then the disintegration could be avoided. We can only hope that the matter is worked out with time to spare.

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