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Is an end to nuclear waste possible?

The 2011 Fukushima disaster in the wake of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake has been an inflection point for nuclear power in the public mind, particularly in Europe. The events dealt a blow to the image of nuclear as a safe technology, and a decade on, its reputation is yet to recover – even as nuclear’s advantages in the fight against climate change are becoming increasingly obvious.

The European Union’s reluctance to include nuclear in its long-anticipated “taxonomy”, which determines how much financial support governments are allowed to provide for nuclear projects, is reflective of this. Lawmakers are unsure whether nuclear will be given a lifeline under the EU’s green finance regulations by classifying it a “transition fuel”, or whether it will be permanently ostracized as a form of energy that causes “significant harm” to the environment because of the radioactive waste it produces.

Nuclear waste is one of the main sticking points in the public discourse about the future of nuclear power. In Germany, for example, it has been a driving force behind the country’s nuclear phase-out. “Indeed, the biggest hurdle to public acceptance of nuclear energy is nuclear waste, which is used or spent fuel,” Koroush Shirvan, an expert on nuclear fuel cycles and professor at the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells Sustainability Times.

The international consensus is that highly radioactive waste should be stored in deep geological repositories, safely locking it away for many centuries. In Europe, “One geologic repository is currently under construction in Finland and another is nearing that stage in Sweden”, explains Prof. Shirvan. “Similarly in France, high level waste is being set aside for geologic disposal after the usable fuel forms (e.g. uranium and plutonium) are recovered and recycled from used fuel.” Read more…