Nuclear waste and transportation

In addition to my previous post, about the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power, here are some facts and figures about the biggest concern of one of the biggest disadvantage of nuclear power plants: nuclear waste.

We know what nuclear waste is, but the major problem can be considered the storage and transport of this waste. Almost every time you watch your television, there are some demonstrations against the transport of nuclear waste. Just a few months ago, in the beginning of November, there was a big demonstration in Germany. (source: http://www.deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws/buitenland/1.900791).

But do all these people really know what this transport is all about? We like to explain it to you. A lot of information concerning the transport of this waste on the site of the “World Nuclear Transport Institute”, or in short “WNTI”. (source: www.wnti.co.uk).

I’ll give you some quotes and passages, which I think are important to understand the issue.

The first question that is discussed is: “What is transported and how?”

“Each day thousands of shipments of radioactive materials are transported around the world. These consignments which are carried by road, rail, sea and inland waterways can range from smoke detectors, cobalt sources for medical uses, to nuclear fuel cycle materials for electricity generation. … Over this period a stringent regulatory regime has been developed at both international and national levels. The safety record of these shipments is impressive, in over 45 years there has never been a transport incident that has caused significant radiological damage to people or the environment.”

The first fact that immediately stands out is the fact that not only nuclear fuel is considered as nuclear waste and radioactive materials. Secondly you can tell that the transport of the waste is extremely safe. There has never been an accident in 45 years of transport. Now, because we only talk about nuclear power in this blog, we will now consider what is nuclear waste exactly. It is important to understand how uranium is used and reused in the nuclear process. The picture below explains the cycle of uranium.

“Nuclear fuel cycle transports are commonly designated as either front end or back end. The front end covers all the operations from the mining of uranium to the manufacture of new fuel assemblies for loading into the reactors. The back end covers all the operations concerned with the spent fuel which leaves the reactors, i.e. the shipment of spent fuel elements from nuclear power plants to reprocessing facilities for recycling, and the subsequent transport of the products of reprocessing.”

“Fuel used in a nuclear power plant generates electricity for about five years. After this time it becomes less efficient and needs to be replaced. This spent fuel still contains 96% of the original uranium, 1% of plutonium, and also about 3% of fission waste products. At this stage, spent fuel can either be sent for storage pending final disposal, or reprocessed to recover the uranium and plutonium. The reusable uranium and plutonium can be used to produce new fuel such as Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel. The 3% waste is transformed into a solid, insoluble glass form by a vitrification process and stored pending final disposal, for instance into a deep geological repository.“

“Spent nuclear fuel is intensely radioactive. It is transferred first from the reactor to the on-site storage ponds for shielding and to allow radioactivity to decay. For subsequent transport off the reactor site, either to off-site storage or to reprocessing facilities at home or abroad, it is transported in high-integrity packages, known as casks. These casks are massively constructed from steel weighing typically around 100 tonnes. Spent fuel is transported extensively by rail across Western Europe and also by sea in Sweden, and from the Far East to reprocessing plants in France and the UK. Sea transport is by specialist ships designed and operated according to the Irradiated Nuclear Fuel (INF) Code of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).”

As you can read, the fuel used in the nuclear power plants is recovered frequently. Only 3% of the used fuel is considered as waste at the end of the process. This waste is stored most of the time deep into the ground, because we have no better alternatives yet. But it is important to see that 97% of the used fuel is recovered or reprocessed, which is much more than most of us think it would be.

In this final paragraph I just give you some facts and figures about the waste and transport around the world, so you would have a better view regarding this issue.

Facts and figures of nuclear power

  • Nuclear power currently supplies around 16% of global electricity supply.
  • Nuclear power has unique advantages due to its fuel source – uranium. Uranium has huge energy potential compared with fossil fuels. 1 tonne of nuclear fuel is equivalent to burning approximately 120,000 tonnes of coal.
  • Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power leads to relatively small quantities of carbon dioxide being released, a greenhouse gas thought to contribute to global warming.
  • The annual operation of a 1,000 MWe light water reactor requires an average fuel load of 27 tonnes of uranium dioxide, containing 24 tonnes of enriched uranium. The assemblies containing this are normally supplied in one consignment occupying 4 to 5 trucks.
  • Uranium offers a long-term source of energy. Unlike fossil fuels, it can be recycled.
  • Spent fuel still contains 96% of the original uranium, 1% of plutonium, and also about 3% of fission waste products. The reusable uranium and plutonium can be used to produce new fuel such as Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel.
  • MOX fuel has incredible energy potential. Just one MOX fuel pellet has the energy equivalence of one tonne of coal.

Facts and figures of the transport of nuclear waste

  • Transport of nuclear materials has been carried out safely and routinely for over 45 years. During this period there has never been a transport incident that has caused significant radiological damage to people or the environment.
  • About 20 million transports of radioactive materials (which may be either a single package or a number of packages sent from one location to another at the same time) take place around the world each year.
  • Nuclear power is not the only industry which relies on the transport of radioactive materials. In fact, the vast majority of transports – around 95% – are not fuel cycle related. Radioactive materials are used extensively in medicine, agriculture, research, manufacturing, non-destructive testing and in the exploration of minerals.

I hope this information will give you an idea about what nuclear waste really is and how it is transported and storaged (or recovered). If you want to know more about this issue, you can visit the website of WNTI (www.wnti.co.uk). A lot of other information regarding nuclear waste and transportation can be found there. If you have any remarks or comments, please feel free to comment below.

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3 Responses to Nuclear waste and transportation

  1. I would like to add some information about the nuclear waste found on the website of the NIRAS organisation.

    There are three types of nuclear waste, the low-, medium- and highly active.
    The low radioactive waste can be handled and stored with the minimum of protection against the radioactivity. Examples are: wastewater used in nuclear power plants, medicine, concrete, etc.
    The medium radioactive waste has to be handled and stored using the correct protection. For storage concrete walls and lead windows are needed. Examples: refining of uranium, disassembly of nuclear plants, etc.
    The highly radioactive waste still emits heat, the same precautions are needed as the medium radioactive waste. Examples: nuclear fuel.

    The last group is only 1% of the total waste but it does emit 95% of the total radioactivity. This shows that not only the quantity of the waste is important but also how much radiation it emits.
    It is much easier and safer to store the 75% categorie 1 waste than the 1% categorie 3 waste.

    (http://www.nirond.be/nederlands/6.4_classificatie_nl.html)

  2. benvandoninck says:

    Niels,

    I like this comment. It makes a clear distinguishing between the different types of nuclear waste.

    I like to add the important factor of the halflife (time in which the radio activity of the waste is halved) of these types of waste. All the information is on the site you gave us.

    The low active waste has a halflife of 30 years, which means that this waste has to be isolated and stored away for at least 300 years, so that the level of activity is decreased with a factor 1000.

    The medium and highly active wast has a halflife of more than 30 years, which means that it has to be stored for more than 300 years, upto even 10 000 years.

    I had no idea that it has to be stored for this long (previously I though it was about several 100 years). If I take these figures into account, I have to admit that nuclear power isn’t that “clean” as I thought before. I mean, although nuclear power creates less waste and pollution than other energy sources (oil, coal, …) and has an higher power efficiency, it still produces waste which is active and dangerous for at least the next 1000 years. I think that is a very important factor you should keep in mind.

    At the other hand, the waste is treated and stored in an extremely safe environment. There has never been an accident with this waste in about 45 years (see article above). As long as it is stored safe and secure, and as long as we are certain that it doesn’t harm the environment while stored, it is my opinion that nuclear power is still a clean energy source.

    What do you think? Let me know it.

  3. Ben,

    Now that I see the numbers that you calculated, they do have to be stored for a very long time. 10 000 years is a very long time, especially since we only live for 90 years. This means that when we look at a storage facility there is only a flow of waste into the facility, there is no outflow of radiation free material. So there will always be a need for more and more storage facilities.

    I agree with you that the amount of waste is the only problem and if there is a better solution than storage, nuclear energy will be more appreciated. For the moment nuclear energy is the most efficient and clean energy source.

    For more information on the topic of waste disposal and possible solutions I would like to refer to our colleagues on the following blog:
    http://matclean.wordpress.com/

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