Case studies in waste disposal
Finland’s nuclear waste repository
For many, I suspect the most compelling evidence for thinking that nuclear waste is a tough problem is news stories about billions of dollars being spent or foreshadowed to build repositories. Let’s consider an expensive example.
Finland’s nuclear industry is often held up as evidence of how costly nuclear power is because they have a reactor project that is way over time and over budget … Olkiluoto 3. The Finns are so devastated by the problems that they’ve ordered another one … Olkiluoto 4. Possibly because, despite the problems and cost-overruns of this “first of its kind” reactor, it’s electricity will still be some four times cheaper than German solar electricity.
But our main interest is in Finland’s planned state of the art nuclear waste repository. The rock that the nuclear waste will replace hasn’t moved for 2 billion years. Drilling 400 meters into igneous rock isn’t cheap, but this isn’t a complex intractable problem. It’s just a hole in some rock. It will cost 3 billion Euros over the next 60 years. They’ve already put aside 2 billion Euros for this expense out of profits made selling their nuclear electricity. Reactors generate such huge amounts of electricity that waste disposal costs per megawatt hour are a very tiny overhead.
If you still think a 3 billion Euro repository is expensive, then compare it to the 100 billion Euros Germany is paying in feed in tariffs over the next 20 years for just 19 terawatt hours of electricity from solar panels installed before the end of 2011.
What about the bad old days of nuclear waste disposal?
Prior to 1972 nuclear waste was just dumped at sea.
What were they thinking?
That’s just it, they were thinking.
Dumping high level nuclear waste at sea may not have the elegance of Finland’s big igneous rock hole, but it’s quite safe and environmentally benign. But it’s also incredibly cheap and simple, so nobody makes any money from it. No wonder they stopped! … I’m only half joking!
Dumping nuclear waste in the oceans is also much, much better than what coal fired power stations do. We know that coal power waste isn’t just potentially dangerous, it is actually harming people and wildlife in the here and now and will continue to do so. But there’s no evidence that nuclear waste dumped at sea has had, or is likely to have, any adverse impacts at all. Most of the sites used have been monitored from time to time and no adverse impacts have been detected.
The ocean, like the earth’s crust and mantle, is already a very radioactive place. The total amount of radioactivity in the oceans, just from potassium-40 alone, is 20 zetta becquerels. If you’ve never heard of “zetta” it’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Potassium-40 is a naturally occurring radioactive form of potassium found in all water and in any food containing potassium. There’s also a variety of other natural radioactive components in ocean ecosystems. So even if you had a leak of radioactive material, what’s it going to do? First, what is meant by leak? This isn’t petrol in a jerry can in your rainwater tank. In the past it was mainly 400 kg rather robust drums. They don’t float. In the unlikely event of future ocean dumping, it would most likely be blocks of a synthetic ceramic with the radioactive atoms being an integral part of the crystal structure.
The ocean floor is constantly being covered as debris from dying sea life and whatever is blowing in the wind arrives and falls down on it from above. So after you drop the waste, it slowly gets buried. Many areas on the floor of the ocean are sediment layers that haven’t been disturbed for billions of years. Scientist know where these undisturbed sediments are, just as they know where tectonic plate edges are. So we could dump or even preemptively bury nuclear waste in ceramic form in these sediments and know they will stay there.
Fish eaters and hypocrites
And if any of the radioactive waste dumped in the past moves or leaks? Will some bottom dwelling sea animals get cancer? Perhaps even die? Some people pay big money to torture and kill (or release for re-torture) fish on the high seas and few people seem to mind. But any harm at all from past ocean dumping is ridiculous in the absence of any plausible mechanism. With a few exceptions, the old waste is at least 3,000 meters below the surface. This is more than a couple of thousand meters below where the fish live that people pay big money to torture and similarly way below the fish that people eat. Sea-life biomass levels drop off rapidly (exponentially) as you descend. There’s certainly life down below 3,000m but it’s extremely sparse and is rarely, if ever, part of upper level food chains. Even if some animals are impacted, it hardly ranks beside the fate not only of the 80 million tonnes of fish each year which are eaten, but also the many millions of tonnes of sea animals simply dragged up in nets as by-catch and then dumped … dead or dying. Eating fish is having global catastrophic consequences as we speak, but there has been no suggestion of any mechanism whereby nuclear waste dumped in the ocean can have any significant impact.
So, if dumping nuclear waste in the oceans is a zillion times safer and more environmentally benign than fishing, why did it stop?
Regardless of what anti-ocean dumping campaigners might have thought (or said), stopping the dumping of nuclear waste in the ocean was a no-brainer. Not because of any environmental risks, but simply because by the late 1960s and early 1970s everybody in the nuclear business had worked out that nuclear waste was far too valuable to be dumped in the ocean.
Part IV will explain exactly why nuclear waste is so valuable. Not only don’t people want to dump it in the ocean, there is an almost universal policy among countries producing is that it not be disposed of in any way that could make it unrecoverable.
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