Destroying the environment and human health is what conventional energy sources do. They also provide energy that increases quality and longevity of life. This reality has lead to renewed vigor in the search for viable alternative energy sources including the resurgence of nuclear power. According to The World Nuclear Association in 2000 “there was as much electricity produced from nuclear energy as from all sources worldwide in 1961.” Considering this, shelving a solution for nuclear energy waste disposal seems like lunacy. A 1993 international agreement did just that.
Debating the pros and cons of nuclear power started with the development of nuclear fission. Accidents such as the ones at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 contributed to the U.S. stopping the building of plants for nuclear energy. A less known reason for this nuclear power slowdown was artificial price increases due to unusually high interest rates for building nuclear power plants. Technology advances have increased the pros for nuclear energy but pubic trust, corporate interests, cumbersome administrative structures and the not in my backyard (NIMBY) syndrome have stymied efforts for nuclear power expansion in the U.S.
The Forgotten Nuclear Energy Waste Option?
An example of the authorities making it hard for nuclear energy to solve some problems associated with dirtier forms of energy is the issue of sub-seabed nuclear energy waste disposal. Burying nuclear waste at sea may initially seem absurd. However, Scientists have made a case for this being a relatively safe way of dealing with nuclear energy waste.
The Department of Energy’s Office (DOE) of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management has this to say about sub-seabed disposal:
Scientists considered burying radioactive waste under the ocean floor, but there are problems associated with this option. Whether waste buried under the seabed could be recovered, if necessary, is questionable. Developing an effective international, legal, and administrative structure to develop, regulate, and monitor a sub-seabed repository would be challenging as well.
In October of 1993, the U.S. signed the London convention. This banned sub-seabed disposal of radioactive nuclear energy waste, at least until 2018. After that year, and in 25-year intervals thereafter, it can be re-considered. Why should legal and administrative hurdles stop what could be the solution to so many environmental problems? Affective ways to monitor sub-seabed oil drilling were certainly not America’s top priority when we allowed oil companies to ravage our coastlines.
According to an October 1996 Atlantic Monthly article, the DOE stopped research funding “for sub-seabed and other disposal alternatives” in 1986. Diverting funds to the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada waste burial site has turned into a money hogging, political debacle.
Evidence for Nuclear Energy waste Sub-seabed Disposal
Indications are burying nuclear energy waste would be astronomically less risky than offshore oil drilling. The Atlantic Monthly article points out that an international team of 200 scientists lead by Charles Hollister of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution conducted a more than twenty -year study on sub-seabed disposal. The study, in which radioactive waste containers were buried at least 100 meters under the seafloor, had encouraging results. Quoting Hollister, the Atlantic Monthly states, “Nothing’s going to bring it into the biosphere, unless we figure out how to reverse gravity.”
Clay in many seabed environments binds radioactive material. Estimates are it would take millions of years for waste to surface. After this time, it is thought that radiation reduces to natural levels. Burying this radioactive nuclear waste at sea would also make it harder for terrorists to access.
What We Are Doing Now With Nuclear Waste
In announcing a lawsuit against the DOE April 12, 2010, Washington State Attorney General Rob Mckenna, is hoping to stop the termination of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site. As outlined on the Attorney Generals website, there are about 53 million gallons of waste being held in 177 underground tanks, 149 of these tanks are past their expected term of usefulness. Of these 149, “more than one-third are known or suspected to have leaked, releasing roughly 1 million gallons of waste…”. This stuff is not going to just go away!
All energy sources have pros and cons. Mining for uranium is certainly not environmentally benign and like coal and oil, nuclear power is not renewable, although recycling technologies could make it so. Chances of an uncontained meltdown may be higher than a life-ending asteroid hitting the planet, but there is still a chance.
It is a fact that Devastating oil spills, coalmine explosions, out of control lung problems, mountaintop removal, mercury in water and soil, acid rain, climate change, and a myriad of other problems would end without the use of coal and oil. The Earth and life that depends on her all have stakes in making appropriate decisions. Is it too much to ask for all nuclear energy waste options to be explored? At least until 2018 it certainly is.
References: World Nuclear Association
DOE: Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management
Atlantic Monthly: Sub-Seabed Soulution For Nuclear Energy Waste http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/96oct/seabed/seabed.htm
Washington State Attorney General