In 1984, a story was published about how a truck transporting hazardous material lost some of its cargo when it swerved to narrowly avoid a visually impaired man. This hazardous material caused irreversible genetic mutations when it came into contact with domesticated animals that had escaped from a bystander during the accident. Luckily, this is the fictitious origin story of the beloved action hero franchise “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Their origin story is one example of any number of superheroes and supervillains including the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Daredevil, and Spider-Man whose origins stem directly from contact with radiation, radioactive material, or “glowing green goo” that is laden with the stereotypes of radioactive waste. It begs the question: why are radioactive origins such a common thread in storytelling? Surely part of this fascination can be attributed to the physical properties of radiation. We use it daily to see through our skin to X-Ray bones at the doctor’s office and to detect metal concealed under clothing at airports. We hear about the almost magical ability of radiation to alter genetics, and cure cancer. At the same time, we see its destructive power to level cities when used in weapons like those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or when its use generating electricity goes wrong like at Chernobyl or Fukushima.
But the majority of stories hinge not on the intentional use of radiation to create action heroes but on an accident, negligence, or mismanagement that leads to an unassuming person coming in contact with a substance that will change the course of their life forever. It is this collective anxiety about the handling and storage of nuclear waste that I seek to address.
As of 2023, not a single country has adopted a permanent storage solution for nuclear waste. This is unacceptable and avoidable. Currently the vast majority of spent radioactive fuel, about 490,000 metric tons, is stored in above ground dry casks or in temporary cooling pools. These methods of storage have been undeniably safe with no injury or loss of life resulting from the transport of high level radioactive waste. However, as long as nuclear fuel is above ground and around humans, there is always a risk of accident or misuse.
Throughout the history of nuclear energy and medicine, “Murphy’s law,” which states anything that can go wrong will go wrong, has proven its validity time and time again. Small amounts of radioactive material, particularly in the 1970s and 80s, had a concerning tendency to go missing. The Safeguards Summary Events List (SSEL) is a reference guide compiled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commision (NRC) in 1980 of all recorded incidents involving licensed nuclear material and license holders from the early 1960s to 1980. It covered a wide range of inclement events in which radioactive material, most commonly from energy plants, medical equipment, or construction equipment was lost or threatened. It covers bomb-related events, intrusion events, missing and/or allegedly stolen events, transportation-related events, vandalism events, arson events, firearms-related events, sabotage events, and miscellaneous events.
While many events were merely hoax bomb threats called into power plants by disgruntled citizens or workers that had little to do with the actual security of radioactive material, there were a few particularly eye-catching events. In one event under the Missing/Stolen heading, two packages containing small amounts of radioactive material were discovered missing from a hospital in Huntington, West Virginia on January 10th, 1977. The packages were missing until January 13th when they were recovered from the city dump under “one foot of sewage sludge and 5 feet of compacted trash” according to NRC personnel.
Another incident under the Missing/Stolen heading outlined an incident in August of 1979 in which a radioactive medical device being transported to a hospital in Bloomfield, Iowa was lost and subsequently recovered 110 miles away from the intended destination in Des Moines, Iowa. According to the report the device “remained intact during the period of loss, although the package was apparently run over by one or more vehicles and damaged.” Fortunately, none of the incidents recorded caused any negative health effects or injuries, and the majority of the items that went missing only contained a very small amount of radioactive material that were recovered shortly after being lost. The same results cannot be guaranteed if these incidents were to involve larger amounts of nuclear waste like that produced at a power plant.
There are safer options that mitigate the risk of possible accidents or sabotage that could be caused by above ground dry cask storage. One of the most promising and widely accepted methods for the permanent storage of high level nuclear waste is known as Deep Geological Disposal. This method involves depositing waste far underground through one of two main methods. The first, and only one currently being implemented in the U.S., is mined geological repositories. This is the process of mining deep shafts that are large enough for heavy equipment and people to enter, similar to the way a traditional mine works. Once a large enough “room” is mined out, contaminated waste is placed and the room and back filled.
The “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant” In New Mexico is the only deep geological isolation location in the US. They tout the advantages of their location 2000 feet below ground in the salt beds of New Mexico because “Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable; an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment. However, its most important quality in this application is the way salt rock seals all fractures and naturally closes all openings.” While Wipp is currently only used for low level waste it is a step in the direction of a safer future.
The second method of geological disposal consists of boring holes deep into the earth and depositing nuclear waste far underground in special canisters. The boreholes are then back filled and sealed. One organization leading the field in geological disposal technology is “Deep Isolation.” They are conducting research and pioneering the science of horizontal borehole repositories.
Boreholes have several advantages over mined repositories, the largest of which is the fact that, at only 18 inches in diameter, boreholes take up far less space than mine shafts. This means they are minimally disruptive to the environment around the site which limits human interaction with the waste. Interestingly, the technology of borehole drilling was perfected by the petroleum industry creating a way to drill for oil. By harnessing the same techniques but drilling over half a mile into bedrock instead of into an oil deposit, waste can be safely stored out of sight and out of mind for over 10,000 years until it is no longer a threat to human life and has decayed to the point that it enveloped back into the earth from where it came.
Deep Isolation cites the stability of bedrock as one of the main reasons deep geological repositories are so effective, stating, “A deep borehole repository takes advantage of the exceptional isolation properties of geologic formations whose past stability can be verified to have endured for millions of years. The disposal zone is far below drinking-water aquifers, in a region in which water has had no contact with the surface for a million years or more.” Horizontal boreholes in particular take that a step further. By traveling in line with the Earth’s strata, “directional drilling can access suitable rock formations at a greater range of depths and in a greater range of geological locations.”
The quest to solve the problem of nuclear waste is more relevant than ever. As the EPA announces its intentions to crackdown on vehicle emissions, more and more Americans are going to be buying electric vehicles. Those vehicles will require massive amounts of electricity and nuclear power is by far the most reliable form of producing energy, producing maximum power more than 92% of the time compared to coal’s 40%. It is clear that the solution is here. In our current world where nearly 1 in 5 deaths globally are a result of air pollution as a consequence of using fossil fuels, implementing safe and effective forms of nuclear waste disposal will be putting us one step closer to living in a cleaner world where science fiction stories rightfully base their villains on fossil fuels and not nuclear.