Disposal of Nuclear Wastes

Science  21 Dec 1973:
Vol. 182, Issue 4118, pp. 1205-1211
DOI: 10.1126/science.182.4118.1205


For the present and the foreseeable future the following options appear to be either usable or worth further exploration: mausolea; disposal in mines of various sorts, and perhaps in ice; in situ melt; and further chemical separations. The options are interdependent.

It is too early to assess disposal in space, and disposal in the oceans remains unsafe for lack of adequate knowledge. Table 3 is a summary of the main ideas for which we have worked out (sometimes uncertain) costs.

For the short term, ultimate disposal in deep mines is the best-developed plan. However, the related concept of in situ melt has significant advantages and should be realistically appraised. Further chemical separation with subsequent recycling of the actinides in a LMFBR should be investigated and implemented, for it would be universally beneficial; on the other hand, additional removal of strontium and cesium does not seem attractive. Thus, for the near future we make the following recommendations:

1) Provide temporary storage facilities to ensure that the projected commercial high-level wastes do not become a public hazard. The AEC adopts this view, and has stated an intention to construct such facilities. But because of the capriciousness of man and nature, a workable ultimate disposal scheme must be developed soon.

2) Fund other ultimate disposal schemes at the same rate as the salt mine project—say $1 million a year or more—to sharpen the technological issues, so that a decision can be reached in the next few years. The schemes should include (i) in situ melt, and the variation with a central repository; (ii) burial in mines other than salt mines (including Antarctic rocks and permanent ice); (iii) further chemical separation of actinides and recycling actinides in a LMFBR.

3) Maintain liaison with the developing space shuttle technology to insure that no opportunity is lost.

The AEC has a commitment to hold safety foremost in its waste management program, but budget considerations and management priorities have downgraded the program. Past funding levels and management emphasis have yet to produce, after a decade and a half, one operational long-term storage facility—a sign of both commendable caution and inadequate work. If nuclear power is to resolve our energy needs in the coming decades, its benefits should not be delayed for lack of a viable management program for high-level wastes.