The word “nuclear” has the power to strike fear in the hearts of individuals from around the globe. As the popularity of nuclear fuel sources increases, so too, does the fear of a nuclear accident related to the generation of nuclear power or the transport of nuclear waste. Additionally, the number of nuclear power plants and disposal sites around the world makes securing them against possible terrorist attacks a daunting task. Today, the debate on the safety issues involved in nuclear power and waste byproducts continues to play out in governmental and public arenas around the world. While some governments are taking steps to ban nuclear energy in light of the environmental and national security threats posed, others are passing legislation to increase the number of nuclear power plants and disposal sites in operation. For all concerned, the subject is one in need of thorough investigation. While there are benefits related to nuclear power, there are significant drawbacks as well.
Concerns over nuclear energy and waste have been plaguing governments for almost a half of a century. By the mid-1960s, the United States had nearly 32,000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal . The creation of these weapons generated radioactive garbage that posed a threat to individuals within the country. In other countries, especially the Soviet Union, attempts to equal or exceed the production of nuclear weapons went into overdrive as the Cold War heated up . While the focus shifted to nuclear energy instead of nuclear weapons after the Cold War ended, the dangers of the wastes produced are the same. According to an author , the nuclear waste produced in the U.S. includes, “91 million gallons of high-level waste left over from plutonium processing, scores of tons of plutonium, more than half a million tons of depleted uranium, millions of cubic feet of contaminated tools, metal scraps, clothing, oils, solvents, and other waste…and 265 million tons of tailings from milling uranium ore”.
In the United States, four bodies carry the primary responsibility for nuclear wastes. The Department of Energy (DOE) is tasked with running the facilities and for supervising the cleanup activities of contractors. The DOE also licenses military reactors . The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with setting the health and environmental standards for the long-term storage of nuclear waste . The Department of Transportation supervises the transport and shipment of nuclear wastes according to the standards set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NCR) . The NCR is also responsible for licensing reactors.
Nuclear waste is the left over material that remains after nuclear fuel has been used. This process takes place in a nuclear reactor. Compared to other fuel sources, atomic energy creates minimum waste. The process takes place in a nuclear reactor. Nuclear waste looks very similar, at the surface level, to the original product that went into the nuclear reactor. While in the reactor the atoms break into two parts. The left over fission products are what are refer to as nuclear waste. The energy will continue to seep out of the fission product for years.
Compared to other fuel sources, atomic energy creates minimum waste. The slow release of fission product energy is what makes nuclear waster harmful or hazardous. The left over waste has a high level of radiation. Nuclear waste will continue having extremely high levels of radiation for up to thousands of years. The waste is so dangerous and has such high levels of radiation that if a person were to be too close to a reactor and not properly protected they would be exposed to deadly amounts of radioactive material and would die from acute radiation sickness in just a few days.
Since it takes so long to break down, it is important to have shielded storage practices. Initially nuclear waste is kept underwater. The water serves as a protective barrier against the radiation and allows the radiation to decay. After a few years, it will have decayed enough that it can be stored in concrete vault like containers. Eventually, the United States would like to bury its nuclear waste in the Yucca Mountain in Nevada deep underground. Unfortunately, this will not hold much nuclear waste and within a few years another place will need to be found.