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The Ongoing Dilemma of Nuclear Waste Storage

November 5th, 2021 by Natalie Mueller

Filed under: Industry News

Waste from nuclear power and weapons is a reality. And, as nuclear waste continues to pile up, scientists are keen to determine the safest long-term solution. These waste materials can be harmful to human or animal health and the environment, and so finding a safe way to store them is a perpetual puzzle. Especially considering that as scientists deliberate long-term storage solutions, the containers nuclear waste are currently held in continue to age and, in some scenarios, leak.

Nuclear waste leftover from nuclear power plants or by facilities involved in nuclear weapons production is highly radioactive and can remain dangerously radioactive for many thousands of years. For that reason, this accumulation of waste demands a permanent depository. 

Some nations have chosen to store liquid nuclear waste by vitrifying the hazardous material into glass. As an immobile solid, glass is highly durable and prevents toxic materials from leaking into the environment and also provides some shielding against radioactivity leakage. India, France and the UK are among the countries who have favored some vitrification of liquid waste for a number of years. While some operations in the U.S. do utilize this process, it isn’t considered a favorable solution long term.

For many countries with large quantities of waste to contend with, the plan is to develop deep geological repositories. In the U.S., one such proposition was a repository 300m below ground level beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Until a decision is made and acted on, much of America’s nuclear waste has been sitting in interim storage since the 1940s.

Tens of thousands of metric tons of radioactive spent nuclear fuel currently sit in a combination of stainless steel and concrete storage casks as they await permanent disposal. Here in Illinois, where Skolnik is headquartered, over 4,000 metric tons of uranium are sitting in storage. Stainless steel casks and salvage drums are a safe and preferred short term storage solution for spent-fuel and other nuclear waste materials. Scientists trust stainless steel, especially in conjunction with concrete, to keep controlled solids safely contained and protected from any corrosion from the dangerous materials themselves. The long-term issue lies in eventual aging and degradation from the environment itself.

These dry-cask containers and salvage drums were manufactured to withstand high levels of stress and damage. However, as these containers sit in limbo, above ground, they remain exposed to the outside elements for decades longer than originally intended.

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