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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.