Nuclear Waste Disposal in the United States
The demand for nuclear waste disposal began 50 years ago while researching nuclear power in order to construct the atomic bomb. Even now the demand increases daily due to the use of nuclear fuels in medicine, research, and nuclear power all while there is still no way to permanently store some of these wastes. Engineers must face the difficult task transporting and storing these wastes properly while prioritizing the safety of the environment and all life within close proximity.
Nuclear wastes are categorized by their level of radioactivity as high and low level wastes. Low level wastes include items such as clothing and tools that have been exposed to radiation. High level wastes are a byproduct of nuclear fuels used in fission, nuclear power plants, and in medicine to form chemical compounds. Direct exposure to high level wastes can kill someone in seconds. While only representing 3% of the total volume of nuclear wastes, high level radioactive wastes account for 99% of all radioactive content (World-Nuclear).
Low level nuclear waste is extremely easy to dispose of when compared to high level but still has its complications. Wastes are transported to repositories and buried anywhere from 20-150 feet deep. The disposal sites are trenches 100 feet wide encased in concrete and compacted clay. Once a trench is filled, the waste containers are covered in clay and a layer of concrete. Most trenches are equipped with moisture monitoring systems and drainage systems (StarTelegram). In the event that the moisture levels are too high, the wastes must be excavated with extreme caution. There is a great need for a better way to maintain and monitor these facilities.
Since WWII, the US has struggled to keep up with the demand for high level nuclear waste disposal. The most difficult issue is the amount of time high level waste must be stored while taking into account its high volatility. Used nuclear fuel, which cannot be recycled, must be stored as close to the reactor as possible. This fuel is confined in a alloy rods and submerged in baric acid for 5-10 years until they have cooled down (World-Nuclear). Pools can become quickly overcrowded and placing rods too close to one another can result in a chain reaction and a nuclear catastrophe. Pools are often enlarged in order to accommodate more waste. After years in the cooling pools, a rod can be moved to dry storage, which requires placing the fuel in reinforced casks and sealing them within a concrete bunker. Here, the need for permanent waste storage facilities arises. Used nuclear fuel is stored in large quantities all over the US in these temporary cooling pools and dry casks until permanent disposal sites can be facilitated.
The location of a possible storage facility must be capable of being undisturbed for thousands of years while maintaining a distance from populated areas, wildlife, and water. Wastes would be shipped to the new facility in dry...