Nuclear powerNuclear Power Offers an Abundant Supply of Low-Carbon Energy. But What to Do With the Deadly Radioactive Waste?

By John Vidal

Published 1 August 2019

The dilemma of how to manage nuclear waste — radioactive materials routinely produced in large quantities at every stage of nuclear power production, from uranium mining and enrichment to reactor operation and the reprocessing of spent fuel — has taxed the industry, academics and governments for decades. Along with accidents, it has been a major reason for continuing public opposition to the industry’s further expansion despite substantial interest in nuclear power’s status as a low-carbon power source that can help mitigate climate change. The race is on to develop new strategies for permanently storing some of the most dangerous materials on the planet.

Less than 2 miles (3 kilometers) away, the stricken, crumbling Reactor No. 4 was one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Everything for miles around, from the mushrooms in the woods to the trucks left in the parking lots to the toys in the nursery and the hospital beds, was radioactive to some degree.

Even though a dosimeter showed that after being washed down, the little flag was barely more radioactive than normal background levels found in nature, it should have been packaged up and landfilled as low-level nuclear waste.

By contrast, Chernobyl’s reactor No. 4 site will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years. In July 2019, 33 years after the explosion, 200 metric tons (220 tons) of uranium, plutonium, liquid fuel and irradiated dust was finally encased below an enormous 36,000-metric-ton (40,000-ton), €1.5 billion steel and concrete structure taller than the Statue of Liberty. The new sarcophagus will last about 100 years — after which it will deteriorate and future generations will have to decide how to dismantle and store it permanently.

Skip forward to Cameron, Texas, on January 16, 2019. This was a nerve-wracking day for Liz Muller, co-founder of California startup technology company Deep Isolation and her father, Richard Muller, professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and now chief technology officer at Deep Isolation.

The father-daughter team had invited 40 nuclear scientists, U.S. Department of Energy officials, oil and gas professionals, and environmentalists to witness the first-ever attempt to test whether the latest oil-fracking technology could be used to permanently dispose of the most dangerous nuclear waste.