Nuclear Wastes

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 5. June 2011 - 22:59
e-learning centre on sustainable development


Heading: Environment    Topic: Nuclear Wastes

The debate over the management and disposal of radioactive wastes from nuclear activities continues with no satisfactory solutions in sight. However as secrecy was lifted from military nuclear programmes, the enormous extent of the challenge became more evident. Revelations of extensive dumping of military wastes and reactors in the Russian Arctic, and of other examples of poor past disposal, added a new dimension to the problem. In 1998, evidence emerged that radioactive waste from 80 scrapped nuclear submarines in the area of the northern Russian naval port of Murmansk had begun leaking into the sea. (Edwards, 1998). Further quantities of wastes will be generated by dismantling old weapons, including 50 tonnes of plutonium in the US, for example (Curtis, 1994). The global plutonium stockpile was estimated in 1994 at 1,100 tonnes and growing rapidly (Panofsky et al., 1994). There are both technical problems in finding safe storage and disposal sites, and financial problems covering the costs of security, decommissioning, decontamination and clean-up. Cleaning up the environmental damage just from the US nuclear weapons programme was estimated to cost up to $375 billion and to take 75 years (US Department of Energy, 1995).

Civilian nuclear activities such as electricity generation also produce wastes that are difficult to handle. Used fuel rods can be reprocessed, but there are still large quantities of radioactive waste materials waiting in temporary storage sites.

Since the 1960s, more than 200,000 tons of spent fuel have been produced by 400 reactors in 30 countries, and every year 10,000 tons are added. One much-debated method of nuclear waste disposal is burial. According to a submission by the Royal Society to Britain's House of Lords inquiry on nuclear waste, all countries with a nuclear waste problem are considering underground disposal as "the only viable long-term option". However, it appears that every country that has tried to find a safe burial site has failed. Cases in point include the United States at Yucca mountain in Nevada, Germany at Gorleben and Britain in Cumbria. In these cases, the countries were faced with more geological complexities and political opposition than expected (Edwards, 1999).

The environmental disadvantages of burial of nuclear wastes include the spread of radioactivity into the surrounding environment. If absorbed into the food chain, it can cause unpredictable genetic damage. Furthermore, some elements have a half-life of up to 100,000 years, and so the effects of nuclear contamination would be permanent and almost irreversible (Tengelsen, 1995).


Curtis, Charles. 1994. (US Department of Energy) Congressional testimony 26 May 1994, quoted in "Radwaste: DOE considers storing plutonium at bases." Associated Press, 27 May 1994.

Edwards, Rob.1998. "Hot Waters". New Scientist, 9 May 1998, p.11.

Edwards, Rob.1999. "It's Got to Go". New Scientist, 27 March 1999 p 22.

Panofsky, Wolfgang, et al. 1994. US National Academy of Sciences report, January 1994. Cited in Kiernan, Vincent. "A bomb waiting to explode." New Scientist, 26 February 1994, p. 14-15.

Tengelsen, Walter E. 1995. "Environmentally sound disposal of wastes". Sea Technology, May 1995.

US Department of Energy. 1995. Quoted in "Nuclear legacy." New Scientist, 15 April 1995, p. 11.

Based partly on materials originally prepared for UN System-wide Earthwatch

Article last updated 4 August 1999

Return to IEF sustapedia


Return to e-learning centre

Last updated 8 September 2010