Technical and social problems of nuclear waste

M.V. Ramana

WIREs: Energy and Environment

27 February 2018

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Despite decades of effort, the nuclear industry does not yet have a working solution for managing spent fuel and high level waste, the most radioactive products generated by nuclear power plants. Although many scientific and technical bodies have endorsed geological disposal as the preferred solution to this problem, there remain significant uncertainties about the long‐term performance of repositories and behavior of the nuclear wastes to be stored in these facilities. Apart from a minority of countries, most countries have not chosen any sites for a repository. Further concerns about the long‐term safety of repositories arise from the experiences of failures and accidents at pilot facilities. One reason for the absence of operating repositories decades after they were first proposed is widespread public opposition to such facilities. Polls have revealed that substantial majorities of people consider nuclear waste with dread and do not approve plans to dispose of radioactive wastes near them, or, often, far away either. Nuclear power advocates have typically dismissed public concerns as resulting from a lack of understanding of scientific facts but this explanation does not withstand scrutiny. Technical approaches to dealing with nuclear waste, such as reprocessing of spent fuel, mischaracterize the social concerns and therefore do not help gain public acceptance. Concern about radioactive waste has contributed to the failure of the propaganda effort by the nuclear industry to market nuclear power as a solution to climate change. The absence of a solution to waste negatively affects the future expansion of nuclear energy.