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Nuclear Waste

Nuclear Waste processing


Every nuclear power station produces waste as part of the process of generating energy.

This waste is then reprocessed in order to separate out the plutonium and uranium, in theory to be able to reuse it as fuel.

Originally reproducing the waste seemed like a good idea, as it was thought that uranium was in short supply. However, this is not the case, and its value on the world market has collapsed.

Its actually cheaper to use fresh uranium than reprocess it. Many countries currently send their waste to reprocessing plants in the UK, France and Russia.

Nuclear symbol

The process involved in separating the plutonium and uranium creates a tremendous amount of waste in its own right, which is highly radioactive, and is greater in volume than that contained in the original nuclear fuel elements.

It also produces huge quantities of liquid waste which gets into the sea and gaseous discharges into the air.

Radioactive contamination in the sea has been traced as far north as the Arctic. This has also had an impact on the people living in the area surrounding the plants, with an increased rate of childhood leukaemia and other radiation linked diseases.

Nuclear symbol

A dumping ground
Countries sending their nuclear waste to be reprocessed are doing it as a means of delaying the question of how to deal with it themselves.

There is an approximately 20 year gap between sending the fuel rods to be reprocessed and getting the real waste back for storage, and some countries, including Germany, have indicated that they have no plans for ensuring its return.

This has led to complaints by environmental campaigners that France, Russia and the UK are being used as a dumping ground for highly dangerous nuclear waste.

Nuclear symbol

So what happens to the waste?
Depending upon the type of waste, it is either stored in cement inside steel drums, or turned into blocks of glass, which has to be continuously cooled as it continues to give out heat.

The radioactive isotopes within this waste decay at different rates. Plutonium takes 24,000 years to lose half of its radioactivity, and some of the other isotopes take millions of years to reach the same point.

There is then the question of what to do with it. Storing it underground can lead to leakage into the water table, causing further pollution.

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Project originally funded by EU and DfID with support from Tower Hamlets LEA