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Argument on the classification of nuclear waste

Reclassify waste to shift the nuclear landscape, The US Department of Energy should classify and dispose of nuclear rubbish according to risk.Nature, 24 October 2017 The United States has a single deep geological repository for nuclear waste. Since 1999, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), 655 metres down in a massive salt formation near Carlsbad, New Mexico, has received 12,000-odd shipments of what it calls transuranic waste. This is clothing, tools and other detritus from the nuclear-weapons programme that are contaminated by elements heavier than uranium. It’s more hazardous than low-level waste, which can be buried closer to the surface, but not as dangerous as high-level waste, for which a disposal site has yet to be found.

WIPP was closed for three years after radiation escaped from a ruptured drum in 2014. It was given the all-clear to reopen only in January; an enquiry determined that the drum had been packed improperly before shipment from the Los Alamos National Labora­tory in northern New Mexico. Concerns remain about safety, as well as the long-term risk of human intrusion into a facility that will remain dangerous for thousands of years after its eventual closure. But by and large, WIPP has functioned as designed, and it could do even more to help the US Department of Energy (DOE) address the fallout from the country’s nuclear-weapons programme.

Much high-level waste — produced during the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel into plutonium — is highly radioactive and dangerous. But the evidence suggests that some of the waste that is labelled ‘high level’ technically qualifies as transuranic. This material is still barred from direct disposal at WIPP, purely because of how it was produced. But labels can be changed. If wastes that meet the transuranic criteria could be shipped to WIPP, it would save considerable time and effort as the DOE continues to struggle with the country’s radioactive legacy. ………

After spending some $11 billion on the as-yet-unfinished vitrification plant over the past two decades at Hanford, some may hesitate to change course. But as former DOE secretary Steven Chu said, the worst thing you can do in a multi-decade project such as nuclear-waste clean-up is to close the door to alternatives. In this case, the solution is simple enough: nuclear waste should be managed on the basis of the risk it poses and not the process that produced it.


October 25, 2017 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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