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Nuclear energy is efficient, but nuclear waste is a challenge. Discover recycling and safe storage strategies for the future

Written by Noel Budeguer
Published 20/05/2024 às 15:32
energy - nuclear energy - nuclear waste - nuclear waste - nuclear power plants - nuclear power plant - radiation
Nuclear energy is efficient, but nuclear waste is a challenge. Learn about strategies like cooling pools and dry storage containers

Nuclear energy is efficient, but nuclear waste is a challenge. Learn about strategies like cooling pools and dry storage containers

The issue of nuclear waste continues to be one of the biggest environmental challenges and public health in the world. With the growing demand for energy and the continued use of nuclear technology, the generation of radioactive waste becomes an increasingly urgent problem to be resolved.

The efficiency in power generation of nuclear plants

Nuclear power plants are, without a doubt, one of the most efficient forms of energy generation we know. One kilogram of uranium releases 3 million times more energy than burning one kilogram of coal. This efficiency is reflected in the fact that the Angra 1 and Angra 2 nuclear plants, in Rio de Janeiro, are responsible for around 3% of the electrical energy consumed in Brazil and more than 30% of the electricity consumed in the state of Rio de Janeiro(Electronuclear)​​ (Wikipedia).

Furthermore, nuclear plants can be considered cleaner than other energy sources, such as hydroelectric, wind and solar plants, as throughout the construction and operation process, they emit less carbon. This makes them an attractive alternative for generating energy with low carbon emissions in the short term.

The Nuclear Waste Challenge

However, this energy efficiency comes with a cost: the generation of nuclear waste. After approximately 8 years, the uranium rods used in the reactors need to be replaced, as the uranium can no longer generate enough heat to keep the reactor running. But the problem is that uranium and its decay products, such as cesium, strontium and plutonium, remain radioactive for thousands, if not millions, of years.

This means that, when designing the storage of this nuclear waste, it is necessary to build something that can last for millennia. Surprisingly, no country has created a permanent solution to this problem to date. What we have are temporary solutions, such as storage in pools of water and stainless steel boxes lined with concrete.

Storage Forms

The safe storage of nuclear waste is one of the main concerns of experts. Currently, there are several strategies being used and developed to ensure that these wastes do not cause harm to the environment or human health.

  1. Temporary Storage: Most nuclear waste is initially stored in temporary facilities such as cooling pools. In these pools, waste is submerged in water, which helps dissipate heat generated by radioactivity and provides a barrier against radiation.
  2. Dry Storage: After a few years in cooling pools, waste can be transferred to dry storage containers made from materials such as concrete and steel. These containers are designed to contain radiation and resist events such as earthquakes and floods.
  3. Deep Geological Deposits: In the long term, the safest solution for storing high-activity waste is depositing it in deep geological formations. These deposits are excavated in geologically stable locations, hundreds of meters below the surface, where waste can be isolated from the environment for thousands of years.

The search for a permanent solution for nuclear power generation

To find a permanent solution, we need two things: a stable geological structure and facilities that do not depend on humans to function. The first is more difficult to achieve, as the Earth is always changing, like the formation of the Himalayas 50 million years ago.

However, Finland appears to be handling the situation appropriately. They are building a nuclear fuel repository 420 meters underground, on an extremely rigid rock base, which practically prevents water contamination. Furthermore, the location was chosen with the long term in mind, even considering the next ice age.

Most nuclear waste is initially stored in temporary facilities such as cooling pools. In these pools, waste is submerged in water, which helps dissipate heat generated by radioactivity and provides a barrier against radiation. Source: Electronuclear

Nuclear Waste Recycling

In addition to storage, nuclear waste recycling is a growing area of ​​research, with the potential to significantly reduce the amount of radioactive waste and extract useful materials.

  1. Nuclear Fuel Recycling: One of the most promising approaches is the recycling of used nuclear fuel. In this process, used fuel is reprocessed to extract uranium and plutonium that can be reused as fuel in nuclear reactors. This not only reduces the amount of high-activity waste, but also makes better use of nuclear resources.
  2. Nuclear Transmutation: Another emerging technology is nuclear transmutation, where radioactive waste is transformed into less hazardous materials through nuclear reactions. Although this technology is still in the experimental phase, it offers a possible solution for long-term waste management.

The challenge of nuclear waste

The challenge of nuclear waste is a serious problem that we need to face. Nuclear power plants are an efficient and clean alternative to power generation, but the issue of safe and permanent storage of nuclear waste still needs to be resolved.

Finland appears to be on the right track, with the construction of a deep and secure underground repository. Furthermore, chemistry can help us better manage all types of waste, drastically reducing our impact on the environment. Nuclear waste management is a complex challenge that requires integrated and innovative solutions. From safe storage to recycling of radioactive materials, each step is crucial to minimizing risks and protecting the environment and public health. As technology advances, it is essential that we continue to develop and implement effective strategies to deal with this waste, ensuring a safer and more sustainable future for everyone.

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Noel Budeguer

Of Argentine nationality, I am a news writer and specialist in the field. I cover topics such as science, oil, gas, technology, the automotive industry, renewable energy and all trends in the job market.

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