Author: Jasper Seibert
In the following, I will take a closer look at the logistics and processing involved in the
disposal of nuclear waste. I will investigate whether nuclear waste can be recycled and if the
environmental footprint, caused by transportation, recycling and storage, is justifiable. Based
on my findings I will discuss whether or not the disposal of nuclear waste is a global matter.
To better understand the different facets of nuclear waste, I interviewed the physicist Dr.-Ing.
Michael Kruse, Bremen.
What is Nuclear Waste?
Nuclear waste (or Atomic Waste) is a very general expression that mainly refers to used up
fuel rods (“spent fuel”) from nuclear power plants as well as the waste that is produced in
reprocessing plants. In the following, all radioactive material, whether depleted or no longer
usable without further enrichment, no matter if it was formed in a nuclear power plant, a
hospital or a reprocessing plant, will be referred to as nuclear waste.
Nuclear waste is divided into three categories by the definition of the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA):
• High Level Waste (HLW)
High level waste is very radioactive and still produces a lot of heat. Compounds with
high radiation levels are very dangerous, when they come into contact with our
biosphere. Although only 2% of all nuclear waste is High Level Waste, it makes up
98% of the radioactivity of the nuclear waste. To be able to transport and store High
Level Waste the dry cast container (see 5.4) is used.
• Intermediate Level Waste (ILW)
Nuclear waste, which exceeds the upper limitations for Low Level Waste, is referred
to as Intermediate Level Waste. It mainly originates from reprocessing plants, research
facilities and shutdown reactors.
• Low Level Waste (LLW)
The majority of all nuclear waste is low level waste. It is still radioactive and produces
small amounts of heat, but does not need to be cooled. Low Level Waste is produced
in many different industries. For example, protective clothing for workers or an old
cloth that was used near a radioactive environment is usually considered Low Level
Waste. Most of the nuclear waste produced in the medical sector belongs to this
category, as well as various materials originating from uranium mining, reprocessing
plants and enrichment plants. About 20,000 tons of Low Level Waste accumulate
every year in Germany.
The exact boundaries between HLW, ILW and LLW vary from country to country.
In Germany, it is more common to divide the nuclear waste into two categories:
• Heat generating waste
Consists of all High Level Waste and Intermediate Level Waste, that still radiate heat.
It makes up 10% of the total waste volume and can heat its immediate surroundings up
to 200°C when stored permanently.
• Waste with negligible heat generation
Nuclear waste, that does not generate considerable amounts of heat.
Nuclear waste is produced in different areas. The main initiators are nuclear power plants, the
medical sector (e.g. radio therapy), research facilities (e.g. Materials research) and the
military. In Germany, 96% of the heat generating waste arises from decommissioned fuel
rods, 3% from the reprocessing of nuclear waste and 1% from decommissioned nuclear
Nuclear waste is transported either by ship, truck or train.
For transportation of High Level Waste, dry cast storage containers are used, in some
countries better known as the castor (cask for storage and transport of radioactive material)
container (see Annex figure 4). They usually are about six metres high and 2.5 metres in
diameter, weigh about 100 tons (empty) and cost approximately 1.5 million Euros each.
They are loaded with about 12 tons of High Level Waste, which can reach temperatures of
several hundred degrees Celsius. Their contents are either fuel rods or glass coquilles
containing the radioactive substances. These containers are mostly manufactured for national
use and most of the countries using nuclear power plants have companies that manufacture
dry cast storage containers.
For transportation of Low Level and Intermediate Level waste various containers are used.
Common containers are the cylindrical containers that are often painted in yellow for
identification purposes (see Annex figure 5). In order to save space, the usually solid content
is compressed tightly.
Nuclear waste cannot be recycled like other types of waste. It can only be reprocessed in
specialized reprocessing plants, where the used fuel rods are cut up and their contents are
separated. In Europe, there are two reprocessing plants, one in La Hague in northern France
and one in Sellafield, UK. The main reason these facilities were built is because reprocessing
nuclear waste produces plutonium, which is needed to construct nuclear weapons. Both
facilities now reprocess nuclear waste commercially for customers around the globe.
In Germany, transportation of nuclear waste to reprocessing plants was banned in 2005
because reprocessing is widely considered as unsafe and harmful to the environment. The
big castor transports that can be seen in the media only return the unusable rest of the
nuclear waste which was sent to France more than eight years ago.
The British reprocessing plant in Sellafield reprocesses nuclear waste from nine countries:
The UK, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada.
Figure 2 shows the amounts of reprocessed fuel from Light Water Reactors in La Hague until
In nature, Uranium contains 99,3% of 238U and only 0,7% of the fissile 235U, which is needed
in nuclear power plants. To be able to use Uranium in a commercial nuclear power plant it
must go through an enrichment process by which the portion of 235U is raised to 2 to 4%.
Unfortunately, this process not only produces enriched uranium, but also unusable depleted
uranium (DU) with a general ratio of 7 tons depleted uranium for 1 ton enriched uranium.
The depleted uranium is usually stored as uranium hexafluoride, a radioactive and highly
toxic gas that needs to be stored and monitored. The United States alone are currently storing
686,500 metric tons of uranium hexafluoride and scientists are still investigating methods to
dispose of it.
Furthermore, when uranium hexafluoride comes into contact with water, it turns into
hydrofluoric acid which is very corrosive and harmful to the environment.
There are about 12 enrichment plants on our planet, operated by different companies. One of
these is URENCO, a European company that has specialized on enrichment. URENCO is
operating four enrichment plants on two continents and exports enriched uranium to
customers in 17 different countries which results in a total market share of 29%.
Legally Questionable Ways of Disposal
Nuclear waste has to be disposed of properly and it has to be assured, that it does not come
into contact with our biosphere.
The environmental protection organization Greenpeace released a report in late 2005 about
illegal export of depleted uranium in form of uranium hexafluoride and the television network
“Arte” broadcasted a documentary about this process in 2009.
The report denounced that depleted uranium in form of uranium hexafluoride is exported from
European enrichment facilities to Russia. Officially, Russian enrichment facilities are able to
extract even more 235Uranium from the uranium hexafluoride, but the enriched uranium is yet
to return to Europe. The report by Greenpeace states that the export of uranium hexafluoride
to Russia for further enrichment is nothing else than a cheap solution to dump the uranium
hexafluoride, because satellite pictures show large amounts of uranium hexafluoride
containers standing under the open sky.
Ideas for the Future
Scientists have many different ideas for the future. The only thing that all these ideas have in
common is that they all aim for a long-term exclusion of the radioactive material from our
Shoot the nuclear waste into space
This method seems rather simple, but getting the material out of the earth’s
gravitational field is very expensive. Calculations reveal that shooting one fuel
element into space would cost five times as much as the electricity the element
produced. Furthermore, if just one rocket containing nuclear waste burned up in the
earth’s atmosphere it could result in an unimaginable catastrophe.
Sink the waste into a deep-sea trench
Years ago, scientists thought, that this method would be very safe, because their
calculations showed that it would take thousands of years until any possibly
contaminated water reached the surface. More recent measurements showed that it
only takes about 750 years until deep-sea water reaches the surface and both glass and
cement can dissolve enough over the years that they leak.
In 1967 first attempts to sink waste in the ocean were made and according to the
IAEA 100,000 tons of radioactive waste were dumped in the sea in well under 50
Disposing the waste in the earth’s interior
Just like disposing the waste in space, this solution fails in matter of expense. The
deepest whole ever drilled was 12,262 metres deep, which is not deep enough to
insure that the material will not reach the surface. Drilling much deeper is technically
not possible with todays’ drilling equipment.
Many people criticize, that the public does not get enough information about nuclear waste
transportation. Inhabitants are not even informed if a nuclear waste transport will pass through
their village. Officials maintain that they are trying to minimize the risk of terrorist attacks,
but if an accident were to occur, the immediate villages and the local fire brigade would not
be prepared for an accident in which radioactive materials were involved.
The environmental footprint of nuclear waste is a very controversial matter. There are
regulations that stipulate the maximum radiation dose outside the containers, but
measurements of a castor transport by Greenpeace revealed higher radioactivity levels than
declared. Furthermore, there are doubts that the reprocessing of nuclear waste is necessary,
because it does not reduce the danger of the waste and scientists agree that nuclear
reprocessing plants emit large amounts of radioactive substances into the air and the oceans.
Greenpeace says, that up to 99% of the nuclear waste that enters reprocessing plants is already
unusable and needs to be disposed of, anyway.
Stored properly, radioactive materials cannot do any harm to the environment, but whenever
there is a leak in a transport container, large amounts of radiation and radioactive materials are
released into our biosphere.
Global Transport Routes
On our planet there are just a few reprocessing plants, which means that some countries, such
as Japan, have to ship their nuclear waste around the world in order for it to be reprocessed.
This results in the main transport routes going from nuclear power plants to reprocessing
plants. Unfortunately, the majority of transports are not announced to the public, which results
in rather vague figures.
Uranium hexafluoride transports are one of the most frequent transports, followed by
transports of Low Level Waste.
A study that was commissioned by the political party “B90 / Die Grünen” revealed that over
all, there are about 500,000 transports of radioactive materials per year in Germany.  This
number also contains transports of still usable materials, but one can imagine the large
number of nuclear waste transports included in this number.
Nuclear waste is a topic with many facets. Unlike other types of waste, it stays fairly national,
which means that countries try to be independent from other countries. We do not see huge
global transportation networks. Interestingly, the few international transports of High Level
Waste are always accompanied by demonstrations and massive media response, whereas the
high number of Low and Intermediate Level Waste transports is often not even perceived by
the public. There are not many people who know that large amounts of nuclear waste are
produced in enrichment facilities and that some of it gets exported to Russia.
Considering that especially during reprocessing, radioactive substances are released into the
air and into the sea, one could say that nuclear waste clearly is a global matter, because we all
drink and breathe the water and air, in which radioactive substances are released by different
facilities around the planet.
The environmental footprint caused by nuclear waste is extensive, if one takes leaking storage
containers into account. This makes the environmental footprint unjustifiable, because the
dimensions of a catastrophe caused by wrong handling are unimaginable.
To sum up, one can say that High Level Waste does not involve much global processing,
because governments try to keep the number of HLW transports to a minimum.
Intermediate Level Waste and especially Low Level Waste are often processed in different
countries and although the majority of the radioactive substances are returned to their country
of origin, there is a lot of global processing involved.
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