Germany Is Closing Nuclear Power Plants — But What To Do With the Waste For A Million Years?

Photo: Bloomberg

Where does one store nearly 2,000 containers of high-level radioactive waste that is absolutely unbreakable and guaranteed to never leak? That is the challenge facing a team of German scientists tasked with figuring out how to safely close down all of Germany’s nuclear power plants by 2031 — and the bar is high — they are aiming for a site that will provide “the best possible safety and security for a period of a million years,” according to CNN.

Why This Matters:  Talk about kicking the can down the road!  Currently, all the spent nuclear fuel is in dozens of temporary storage sites scattered around Germany, but they were only designed to hold it for a few decades and some of the current locations do not meet the current safety standards.  Now the government is looking for a safe place to bury it at least 1 kilometer below the surface in solid rock — but Germany has very little solid “bedrock” to work with.  This is something they probably should have thought about sooner.  The U.S. is not in much better shape, however.  According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), here “nearly all spent nuclear fuel is currently stored on-site at commercial nuclear power plants and only a very small amount, less than 1%, has been shipped to away-from-reactor, off-site facilities.”  This is why new nuclear power plants are so controversial.

How Hot Is It?

Spent nuclear fuel is still really, really hot and deadly.  The German lead scientist told CNN that “If you opened up a canister with those fuel rods in it, you would more or less instantly die,” and the rods are “so incredibly hot, it’s very hard to transport them safely.” So, for now, they must be stored in containers where they can first cool down over several decades before being buried.  One important consideration is designing a way to ensure that wherever they put the nuclear graveyard will be clearly marked to explain to future generations thousands of years from now — when language might be completely different — that they must not disturb the site.  And no communities have stepped up to say that storing the waste in their midst would be accepted regardless of the safety standards.

How Many Nuclear Plants Are Left?

Germany’s 7 remaining nuclear power plants will be phased out by 2022 — they decided to phase out the remaining plants after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 in Japan, with public concern in Germany about their safety growing.  Worldwide there are still more than 400 operating nuclear power plants but many nearing the end of their operating lifetimes, and so the issue of waste storage will only become more urgent.  According to the EIA, “as of October 1, 2019, there are 58 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 96 nuclear reactors in 29 U.S. states.”

To Go Deeper:  Read this CNN Business article about how to demolish a nuclear reactor without causing a nuclear explosion!


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