With global climate warming being the greatest environmental and political challenge of the 21st century, the need for alternative sources of energy such as nuclear power has never been more pronounced. Nevertheless, the expansion of the use of nuclear power is accompanied by its own set of ecological challenges: the greatest one is the radioactive waste produced due to its highly hazardous nature and incredible longevity.
Long-term deep geological disposal in repositories is widely agreed in the scientific community to be the best solution for final disposal of the most radioactive waste produced. Repositories provide a high level of long-term isolation and containment without the need for much future maintenance. For the past three decades, many countries have been working on national repository projects, but there has been very little progress so far. Both technical and political factors led and continue to lead to such persistent stagnation.
For example, the societal, technical and financial continuity needed to keep repositories safe over time: spans of hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years is very difficult to conceptualise. Therefore, the ethical question arises whether we have the right to oblige future generations to manage highly hazardous wastes that they themselves did not produce. Governments and political leaders all over the world have already answered this question by developing and using nuclear weapons and allowing hundreds of nuclear power plants to be built. As a result of these decisions, highly radioactive waste produced worldwide has reached alarming proportions, and the obligation to responsibly manage it is inescapable.
Faced with rising global temperatures, our society has been forced to rethink its destructive ways. Lowering global CO2 emissions has become a priority for many countries and while some are deciding to tackle this issue by shifting towards renewable energy, many others are opting for nuclear technology. There is no doubt that nuclear power plants may (and did in the past) leave behind wicked legacies, but many scientists argue that the cost of that is still significantly lower than the cost of doing business as usual, i.e. if we would continue to use fossil fuels excessively.
A 2013 study used historical production data and calculated that nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning from 1971 to 2009. In that same time period, a number of human deaths caused by nuclear power was estimated at 4,900 such deaths, which is 370 times lower than the count of avoided deaths.
The rapid accumulation of radioactive waste resulting from the expansion of the nuclear sector has put an increased pressure on the scientific community to try to solve the obstacles to a safe disposal system. Among many other issues, choosing an adequate site to host a repository has proven to be one of the greatest safety challenges the experts are facing. In the early 2000s, a major breakthrough was made via the “high-isolation approach” to site election.
Essentially, certain geological attributes of a potential repository site were identified, which would not only make it extremely safe, but also very simple so that the issue of safety could be as easily demonstrated to the public and to the scientific community. Some of those attributes include a stable geology which would make long isolation times possible, a flat topography that indicates slow water movements reducing the risks arising from it and a rigid, dry climate with little or no erosion tendencies–a type of climate from which considerable extrapolation benefits arise.
However, the first long-term repository has not yet been constructed despite the fact that a solid safety case could be made to political and public groups with the high-isolation approach. The reasons behind this are manifold, but the general lack of public acceptance for any radioactive waste solution has been by far the biggest obstacle, even labeled as “insurmountable” by some experts.
Ever since the idea of a repository for radioactive wastes has entered the public discourse, it has been harshly and relentlessly rejected by most of the public before any form of open and informed political discussion even took place.
The antipathy to nuclear power in general, aversion towards waste and the particular fear of radioactivity have all contributed to this trend of instant rejection, mostly carried out by the so-called NIMBY movements–“Not In My Back Yard.” These fears are even more magnified in the multinational waste disposal concepts when the notion of accepting someone else’s waste is added to the equation.
However, this instinctive tendency to reject such facilities and especially to multinational solutions, is an act of self-sabotage with global implications. With the projected expansion of the nuclear power sector in the coming years, it will be crucial to assure sufficient amount of adequate disposal options for radioactive wastes. Regional or international deep geological repositories will have to be built in the future simply because other solutions will be less feasible.
Taking into account that the construction of any repository-national or international-would cost billions of dollars, it makes little sense that there would be dozens of repositories built around the world. Some countries, and especially those with smaller nuclear programs, do not have sufficient resources to develop, construct and operate national repositories. This means that without the shared facilities, such countries would be unable to dispose of their long-lived waste adequately–a situation that is far more dangerous than having a responsibly managed long-term storage facility.
One additional problem arises from the fact that political parties, in order to appeal to the public and get reelected, also tend to reject repository projects without much informed discussion. In order to overcome this problem, it is crucial to ensure that the civil society is well informed about the issue of radioactive waste as a whole and understands the available choices and their respective consequences. Decisions should be made based on exact science, sound ethical principles and good economic sense rather than on emotional and irrational perceptions.
In any case, radioactive waste is already omnipresent, and it cannot disappear. That means, however unpleasant the thought may be, that someone’s “backyard” will have to host it. Understanding that side effects of earlier interventions compromise our freedom of choice for future options will be essential for the much-needed attitude change.