Feature Report: The Major Challenges of Nuclear Energy

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Radioactive Waste Management

The management of radioactive waste presents unique challenges because the radioactive materials cannot be recycled. Contrary to popular belief, the nuclear power industry is not responsible for all radioactive waste. In France for example, 38% of radioactive waste is produced by the national defense, research and medical industries. Electricity generation accounts for the remaining 62%. 

Cigéo, a planned radioactive waste storage center in eastern France, will be situated 500 meters below ground in a layer of clay that can contain the radioactivity. © AFP PHOTO / JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN

Different types of waste

In France, nuclear waste is classified into five categories based on two main criteria: the radioactivity level and longevity (radioactive half-life) of the waste1 (see Close-Up: “Radioactivity, a Natural or Man-Made Phenomenon”).

 

In France, nuclear waste is classified into five categories based on the radioactivity level of the waste and its longevity.

Conditioning and storage

Very-low-level waste – a category that is specific to France – is easily conditioned and stored. It is packaged in "big-bags" and covered with soil. In France, they are stored in layers at the Morvilliers facility in the northeastern part of the country.

Low and intermediate level short-lived waste is compacted, placed in metal containers and embedded in concrete. In France, they are stored a few kilometers from Morvilliers, at the Soulaines facility.

Conditioning low-level long-lived waste presents no technical difficulties. However, its long-term storage, ensuring that it is safely stored and monitored for several thousands of years, is far more problematic. For the moment, this waste is kept at nuclear sites such as Marcoule in France2. It is interesting to note that some chemical waste, such as mercury or arsenic, remain toxic forever.

The conditioning and storage of the two remaining categories (intermediate-level long-lived waste and high-level waste) is far more sensitive because they are both extremely hazardous and have very long half-lives. These wastes are vitrified – incorporated into molten glass – to ensure their containment long into the future. The glass is poured into stainless steel containers and stored in France in ventilated pits at the recyclingAny waste treatment process that uses materials from identical or similar end-of-life products or manufacturing waste to produce new products. center at La Hague. No radioactivity is released from the containers, but they are closely monitored in what are called "warehouses".

What should be done in the very long term, bearing in mind that the radioactivity level of intermediate-level long-lived waste and high-level waste takes thousands of years to decline significantly? One option under consideration is deep underground storage in geologically suitable areas where clay or granite prevents water infiltration. Such solutions are subject to national legislation in countries around the world. France’s national radioactive waste management agency (Agence nationale pour la gestion des déchets radioactifs –agence nationale pour la gestion des déchets radioactifs (andra)ANDRA, the French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency is responsible for the long-term management of radioactive waste produced in France.), an independent public establishment, is working from its underground research laboratory near the northeastern municipality of Bure on the Cigéo project to develop a deep geological disposal facility. The United States has initiated a deep geological storage facility project at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but it has not been completed.

 

Sources

(1) The French national radioactive waste management agency (ANDRA)

(2) The French national radioactive waste management agency (ANDRA)