The majority of the radioactivity produced in a nuclear reactor is in the uranium fuel rods, which are periodically removed and replaced by fresh fuel, typically after about five years. This radioactive used fuel must be carefully managed and there are many safe approaches to manage this material, including disposal in a specially designed repository.
Here, we consider one of the most widely recommended approaches recovering the energy content still contained in uranium and plutonium through chemical reprocessing for use as fuel for future reactors and incorporating the residue, which contains nearly the entire radioactivity, into glass containers for burial deep underground.
How do we know that this glass-encased radioactive waste glass will not impact human health?
Scientists know how rocks behave and there is every reason to expect this glass-rock container for high-level radioactive waste will behave similarly. All ordinary rocks contain radioactive materials,
and analyses demonstrate that we can calculate the probability for an atom of these to find its way, via groundwater transport, into our food and water supplies. For rocks at the burial depth of glass-enclosed radioactive waste, this probability is about one chance in a trillion per year. From that we calculate that all the byproducts produced by America’s nuclear power plants will eventually cause less than one death per year in the U.S. population. Compare this with the many thousands of deaths per year caused by air pollution from burning coal to produce electricity.
There are several independent methods for confirming this estimate of less than one death per year from spent nuclear fuel. For example, from our knowledge about erosion processes,we can calculate the probability per year for an atom of buried radioactive waste to be dissolved into groundwater (one chance in a billion), and we can trace the various pathways by which it can get from deep groundwater into our food and water supplies—via potable water derived from wells and rivers, groundwater used for irrigating food crops, fish caught from rivers and lakes, etc.
Again, this indicates about one death per year over many thousands of years of continuous use of nuclear energy. These analyses assume that the radioactive waste is buried at locationsthroughout
the United States,whereas the actual locations of waste repositories are carefully selected by geologists and hydrologists and licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to minimize the potential for health impacts.
Radiation and Risk: Expert Perspectives
People from contaminated water and food.
They also adjust waste siting to comply with engineered safeguards provided to minimize dissolution of the radioactivity into
groundwater. These safeguards include multiple barriers such as the leach-resistant casing
enclosing it and the special clays in which it would be embedded. In addition, low-level
radioactive waste—such as filters, water clean-up agents, reactor parts, and contaminated
tools — is buried in 20-meter-deep trenches in government-licensed facilities that adhere to
elaborate regulatory requirements on packaging and water infiltration control. Analyses indicate that this buried material will cause only a few percent as much human health impact as the high-
level radioactive waste.
The cost of high-level radioactive waste management is covered by a tax of one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour of electricity from nuclear energy facilities used by consumers.