The Burden of Nuclear Waste

Tensions within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration over Germany’s energy policy cut to the heart of a contentious, worldwide debate over the future of nuclear power. The old controversies over nuclear reactors — their dangers, benefits and costs — have been raised to the forefront.

But as politicians, energy experts and the general public weigh the pros and cons, one key element in harnessing energy from the atom is being neglected: the link between the different methods of producing nuclear power and the nature — and longevity — of the radioactive waste that each method leaves behind. This in turn raises the issue of intergenerational justice: The technical choices we make today will determine the extent of the burden humanity will face in containing contaminated byproducts that can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

While an increasing number of states are being swayed by the fact that nuclear power can enhance domestic energy security, produce large amounts of energy, and emit very low greenhouse gas byproducts, critics nonetheless remain vociferous.

They cite the continued risk of reactor accidents, the dangers of transporting nuclear fuel and fears of proliferation — along with the vexing problem of how to deal with the long-lived nuclear waste — as reasons why it should be curtailed.

But what is most striking in this controversy is the “missing nuclear debate.” Little is said about the major distinctions between the various production methods, or nuclear fuel cycles. Rather than reducing nuclear power to a simple yes/no, good/bad dichotomy, we need to focus first on the advantages and disadvantages of each nuclear energy production method, including the burdens and benefits they pose now and in generations to come.

One of the key differentiating features between the various production methods is the nature of waste that is produced after irradiating fuel (uranium oxide) in a reactor. In the so-called open fuel cycle (common in the United States, Sweden and some other countries) spent fuel is generally disposed of as waste that will remain radioactive for 200,000 years.

In the alternative, known as the closed fuel cycle, or European method, spent fuel is reprocessed in order to extract the redeployable uranium and plutonium, which are then re-entered into the fuel cycle. In the closed fuel cycle, the lifetime of radioactive waste is reduced to about 10,000 years.

Approached from the framework of intergenerational justice, there is a strong case for arguing that the people living today should deal with the burdens of nuclear power because we will enjoy the lion’s share of its benefits. Thus, from a moral point of view, if we want to keep developing and spreading nuclear power, the closed fuel cycle should be preferred because it reduces the radioactive lifetime of waste and the burdens placed on future generations.

However, the closed cycle brings about another intergenerational dilemma: In order to reduce long-term concerns for future generations, we will create short-term safety, security and economic burdens for people currently alive.

Nuclear reprocessing itself is a complex and costly chemical process. More importantly, the plutonium separated during reprocessing in the closed cycle method raises the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons.

A nuclear bomb with the yield of the Nagasaki bomb could be manufactured with a couple of kilograms of plutonium. Even though civilian plutonium emanating from energy reactors is not weapon-grade and directly usable for a bomb, it still has some destructive powers. We need to ensure that promoting the closed cycle method does not spread even more nuclear weapons.

Serious attempts are being made to limit the dangers of proliferation in reprocessing, for example, by keeping plutonium and uranium mixed during reprocessing or by appointing a number of countries that reprocess the spent fuel of other nations under international safeguards. The latter procedure occurs in Europe, where France and Britain reprocess spent fuel for countries using the closed fuel cycle that do not hold reprocessing plants.

But there is an even better prospect for easing the future burden: the development of so-called fast reactors capable of reducing the lifetime of radioactive waste to a couple of hundred years. This involves the development of extended closed fuel cycles based on multiple recycling and new reactor technology. This method, referred to as Partitioning and Transmutation, or P&T, has been scientifically proven but may require decades of development before it can be practically applied. Nonetheless, P&T represents a potential breakthrough that could genuinely transform the debate.

Several countries that use nuclear power on a big scale, including China, India and Britain, have decided to build more reactors. Moreover, smaller members of the nuclear energy club with longstanding reservations over future expansion, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, are now re-evaluating their stance. Meanwhile, there is a growing, much under-recognized, push elsewhere in the world toward the adoption of nuclear energy.

The International Atomic Energy Agency currently estimates that some 50 countries will have nuclear reactors by 2030 — up from 29 today — with the latest entrant to the club being Iran, which announced recently that it has begun to fuel its Bushehr plant. If these projections are borne out, the 436 nuclear reactors currently operable around the world will be joined by more than 500 others within the next few decades.

This trend doesn’t make the decision Angela Merkel faces any easier. Indeed, a recent opinion survey by Forsa, an independent polling institute, found that while 46 percent of respondents favor extending the life of Germany’s 17 existing reactors, 46 percent want them shut down. The split illustrates why the development of new fuel cycles like P&T technology should move to the fore of nuclear energy policy considerations, alongside greater discussion of the pros and cons of the open fuel and closed fuel cycle models. The debate needs to become less vociferous and more enlightened — and more reflective of the quest for intergenerational justice.

Behnam Taebi, an assistant professor of philosophy at the Delft University of Technology who concentrates on issues of ethics and nuclear power.