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Nuclear Storage in Doubt

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Storage of nuclear waste remains my biggest concern with the technology. Now it looks like even our limited knowledge about how to store it moderately safely is in doubt. Nature is reporting that radiation degrades our storage containers more rapidly than we expected.

This is not to suggest that we have a problem with storage now or even in the near future. The question is what kind of a mess we are planning to leave for future generations.

Nuclear waste needs to be stored for hundreds of thousands of years. We thought we could store it safely for a couple of thousand but it looks like the technology is not there yet.

The problem is that the radioactive waste damages the matrix that contains it. Many of the waste substances, including plutonium-239, emit alpha radiation, which travels for only very short distances (barely a few hundredths of a millimetre) in the ceramic, but creates havoc along the way.

A fast-moving alpha particle knocks into hundreds of atoms in its path, scattering them like skittles. Worse still, the radioactive atom from which the particle comes is sent hurtling in the other direction by the recoil. Even though its path is even shorter than that of an alpha particle, the atom is much heavier, and can knock thousands of atoms out of place in the ceramic.

All this disrupts the crystalline structure of the ceramic matrix, jumbling it up and turning it into a glass. That can make the material swell and become a less secure trap. Farnan says that some zircons that have been heavily damaged in this way by radiation have been found to dissolve hundreds of times faster than undamaged ones. So if the ceramic gets wet, there could be trouble.

This does not make storing nuclear waste impossible, but it certainly suggests we have a lot more work to do. This strikes me as being a decent reason to wait for more research before adding more nuclear power plants.