Researchers are devising new ways to deal with the byproducts of nuclear power. But it is not just a technological problem
June 3.─ The accident at the Fukushima nuclear power-station in Japan last year, the worst since the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986, has led many countries to reconsider their commitment to nuclear power. It has also drawn new attention to the enduring problem of dealing with nuclear waste. Around 270,000 tonnes of high-level waste, mostly spent fuel, are in temporary storage around the world. Another 10,000 tonnes of waste are added each year, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry body.
Should it be buried in undersea fissures, stored underground or manipulated to make it less harmful? The abandonment in 2009 of a plan for a huge storage site shielded by 300 metres of volcanic rock in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, gave the matter new urgency in America even before Fukushima. The presidentially mandated Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which delivered its final report in January 2012, emphasised the "urgent" need for a fresh waste-disposal strategy. Meanwhile, new rules adopted by the European Union last year require member countries to draw up long-term plans for dealing with their nuclear waste by 2015.
Dealing with nuclear waste does not just mean preventing it from doing harm today, whether as the result of accident, malicious intent or natural disaster. It also means ensuring that waste does not poison future generations—people who discover nuclear waste in the far future may not realise what it is—and doing so in a way that is acceptable to today's taxpayers.
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