Common Problems Related to Nuclear Power

When people consider nuclear energy, problems often come to mind. Some of the concerns are valid but many of the fears have not been justified.

These are fear based on nuclear incidents where radiation may be leaked that could harm or kill people in the area surrounding a nuclear reactor.

The risk is real but the fear is not in proportion when you consider how few nuclear incidents there have been in the past 30 years.

Problems connected to disposal or storage of nuclear waste is a valid concern and one that is ongoing. It is the handling of spent fuel rods that is the biggest drawback to nuclear power plants.

Though uranium is not especially dangerous when mined, the nuclear fission used to produce electricity results in fuel rods that are highly radioactive. The nuclear waste of a reactor is a danger to people and to the environment.

Radioactive Waste

Disposing of nuclear waste is a growing concern even though we are not currently building new power plants. In many countries, nuclear power plants built 30 years ago are at the end of their useful life when it comes to operation.

In the U.S., most nuclear reactors have reached the licensed limit of 30 years and about half of them have been granted an extended 60 year license.

In addition, we have radioactive waste from nuclear missiles that were decommissioned at the end of the cold war. Disposal of nuclear waste is a hotly contested political issue and arguments over disposal methods are as loud as the argument over increasing our dependence on nuclear energy.

As old reactors are closed down, there must be safe and secure storage for the numerous fuel rods that will be removed during the closing. Radioactive waste is classified into two types. Low level waste includes the cooling water pipes, the radiation suits and mechanical arms, and any other materials that came into contact with the active fuel rods.

Low level waste also encompasses medical waste left from x-rays or radiation treatments for cancer patients. This low level waste is not a major disposal problem. The half-life of an element is the speed at which the element will break down in harmless components.

Low level radioactive waste has a short half-life which means safe storage of the waste for anywhere from ten to fifty years provides enough time for the isotopes to decay and the radiation to be neutralized. Once the waste has decayed, it can be disposed of safely using normal waste and trash disposal methods.

Problems related to nuclear energy usually focus on high level radioactive waste storage. This waste is from the core of a nuclear reactor or a nuclear weapon or even the engine powering a nuclear submarine. This dangerous waste material includes uranium, plutonium and other elements that are highly radioactive.

This waste was created through the fission process and has a very long half-life before it reaches safe levels of radioactivity. It's hard to imagine but some radioactive isotopes can take 100,000 years before reaching the end of the active life.

Disposal Options

The more pressing problems are focused on long term storage of nuclear waste. Spent fuel rods are now stored on-site at the power plant.

Huge basins are built of thick concrete and fill with water where the spent fuel rods are submerged and can be carefully monitored. Some plants opt for steel and concrete airtight containers for storage on-site. In the U.S., the federal government is responsible for long-term storage of nuclear waste.

To get an idea of the difficult and political problems in building a long term storage facility for nuclear waste, a good example is the storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

This area was chosen due to remote location with low population and the ability to create a geologic repository that would be safe and easy to secure. After years of arguments, the Yucca Mountain site was approved for waste storage in 2002. Construction began and continued for years in spite of repeated efforts by state residents and environmental groups to halt the plan.

In 2009, as the storage site neared completion, a new administration terminated funding for the project. The stated plant was to "think it over". The proposed repository is only 100 miles from a major city - Las Vegas - and the outcry from the public was certainly a contributing factor in halting the project.

Can we Recycle?

Problems focused on radioactive waste have their basis in the 1970s when the federal administration of the day ended a fledgling waste recycling program. Even with a recycling program, we would still need storage space for both high and low level nuclear waste but the space required would be much less than with our current methods.

Recycling nuclear waste would turn waste into a resource and this is the goal of newly designed self-sustaining uranium breeder reactors. In China and in France, nuclear power is used more extensively than in the U.S. and both countries have active waste recycling programs.

As the current administration has announced plans to promote more nuclear energy, problems connected with both funding and storage will again be at the forefront of any discussions held. Unless the plants proposed are of the newest self-sustaining designs where re-use of the resources is a feature, it is doubtful the U.S. will move toward more nuclear energy any time soon.