Nuclear Waste Problem

Balu Pushkas, Staff Writer

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From the first nuclear bomb to the Cold War, the breakthroughs in nuclear energy and the atom have shaped the world. Safely harnessing nuclear energy and controlling it’s waste are a difficult problem that the US has struggled with for decades.

To many people in Tennessee, the matter of nuclear energy and its waste might seem a bit alien and unimportant. They should care, however, because the Tennessee Valley Authority has 2 nuclear plants in the state, each of which holds rods of nuclear waste which are a potential hazard.

Although most people do not know much about nuclear energy, everybody at least know bits and pieces.

Isabelle Torres is a 7th grade student.

“It’s radioactive and it hurts people,” Torres said.

The common idea about nuclear energy and waste is that it is dangerous,but nuclear energy does have its advantages. Iit is the only energy that is available 24/7, environment friendly and inexpensive.

“I know nuclear energy is a safe way to produce energy as long as the plant doesn’t overheat and shut down,” Luke Steadman, a 7th grade student, said.

Although such disastrous circumstance could indeed happen, there have only been three examples of such an event. These circumstances have happened at 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Crowe is a 7th grade math teacher and coaches Sevier Middle School’s Science Olympiad team.

“Nuclear energy has pros and cons, and I think both require careful consideration before saying I’m on the ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ side when it comes to nuclear energy,” she said.

At first, nuclear energy seems like a daunting and risky source of energy compared to coal, natural gas or wind. As coal and other fossil fuels are running out, these materials become harder and harder to find. Even renewable resources like wind and water are not completely reliable because sometimes there is no wind, or a river dries up.

Rebecca Tipton is a 7th grade social studies teacher and brings some knowledge about nuclear energy and waste to the table.

“I know that it is a clean, alternate form of energy that is effective and efficient…unless there is an explosion or a leak,” she said. “Then, it poses a huge threat to human health and endangers the environment significantly.”

Jenny McKlveen, a 7th grade science teacher, agrees.

“My current thinking is that nuclear energy is one of the most environmentally friendly sources of energy in regards to emissions of carbon dioxide,” McKlveen said. “Compared to coal power plants, it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions during the production of electricity. However, disposal of radioactive waste and protecting people and the environment from its radiations are two large cons of nuclear energy.”

Nuclear energy is a gift to people in need of cheap, reliable energy, but also the bane of communities near such facilities.

Jim Hopson is the Public Relations Manager for the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA is in charge of the nuclear facilities in Tennessee, as well as in bordering states.

“In Tennessee, an important part of our power supply is nuclear energy,” Hopson said.

Although many people make nuclear energy out to be dangerous, according to Hopson, it is the only energy source that is “available 24/7, clean and inexpensive”.

Crowe also believes nuclear energy can earn its keep.

“I know that it has lots of potential, but can be hazardous if not managed and maintained with care,” she said.

Engineers and scientist have studied nuclear energy long enough to devise precautions and procedures for hazardous events.

Many residents want as little do with nuclear energy as possible because of the stereotype that nuclear energy is not worth the risk. Torres also believes that nuclear energy is not safe.

“It’s dangerous because if it gets out of control it can hurt people,” she said.

Even though some of these worries are well founded, much of the public does not know how reactors work and how the government, along with specialist, are making sure nuclear energy is kept under control.

Although nuclear energy can indeed be controlled, the waste is a slightly more complicated matter. Torres believes the government should “move nuclear waste to a more unpopulated area,” and that is indeed the government’s plan.

Government officials found a place called Yucca Mountain in Nevada and began preparing it to house the country’s nuclear waste indefinitely, until Nevada senator Harry Reid had the motion blocked because the site would be in his state.

“Yucca Mountain was closed because of technical and political issues, but now I believe it is just political, so hopefully Yucca Mountain will be active and ready for use,” Hopson said.

Although Yucca Mountain was abandoned, President Trump believes that Yucca Mountain will be included in the next budget at 120 million dollars to start the site.

There is a site far to the west of Tennessee, located in Washington, called Hampton. The Hampton site is famously known as the most radioactive place in the country.

“Hampton was a nuclear weapons testing site, not a nuclear energy site, so the circumstance are different at nuclear energy facilities,” Hopson said. “Nuclear reactors are protected and well secured through the works of many engineers and scientists.”

Indeed, controlling nuclear waste long term is the problem, and a problem for which other countries have also been exploring solutions.

“Several European countries, as well as Russia, China and Japan, have policies to reprocess used nuclear fuel,” Crowe said. “Reprocessing high level nuclear waste, the most radioactive type, significantly reduces the amount of high level waste to be disposed of.”

This process, called chemical reprocessing, lets scientists reuse major portions to get more energy.

“If I had any power to change the way that nuclear waste was disposed of, my first priority would be to require reprocessing of as much nuclear fuel waste as possible,” Crowe said.

Reprocessing fuel is one of the ways that the government is planning on dealing with nuclear waste, but officials are also vying to dispose all nuclear waste on Yucca Mountain, a plan at a political stalemate at this point.

Crowe believes that reusing nuclear waste is the future of the nuclear industry.

“I think if there’s less nuclear waste to dispose of, it’s automatically less of a problem to manage.” she said. “My next big priority would be to try harder to find a way to dispose of nuclear waste that didn’t involve burying it in the planet we live on.”

This problem has been around since at least the 1970’s.

“The scientific community hasn’t discovered a solution to the problem of the disposal of radioactive waste,” McKlveen said. “Also, the process of mining and refining uranium isn’t a clean enough process. People in general are scared when they hear the word ‘nuclear,’ so that is another obstacle that must be overcome if we are to continue to use nuclear energy.”

One big reason why some renewable energy sources are harder to use than nuclear energy is economics. Solar energy can be extremely expensive and nowhere near as reliable as nuclear energy, meaning that a person could be paying huge sums of money for a kind of energy that is not always guaranteed to turn on. Hydroelectric energy often involves building dams in rivers, which can irreversibly change the ecosystem and destroys habitats.

Still, When people think of nuclear energy, they think of disasters like Fukushima or Chernobyl. It is important to remember that no plan if foolproof, and even the best designs have flaws that time will exploit.

Chernobyl was caused due to a faulty Soviet Reactor and many plant organizers made critical errors that ended in the death of 2 workers and many civilians.

Fukushima is the most recent disaster and occurred in 2011. No one was killed during the incident; the reactor was hit by an earthquake that measured above 9 on the Richter scale. Although the reactor survived the earthquake without a scratch, the tsunami that hit afterwards flooded the reactor, causing the reactor to fail.

These horrific incidents prompted engineers and scientist to improve nuclear facilities’ designs to decrease the risk of such events happening again.

“Fukushima and Chernobyl were special cases, and these incidents could not happen in Tennessee,” Hopson said.

As the time passes without permanent solutions for nuclear waste disposal, nuclear waste is accumulating. With the threat of fossil fuels running out and causing severe pollution, nuclear power is becoming increasingly necessary. Refusing or postponing dealing with the safety and necessary disposal problem is not an option.

“[The problem] is not as serious as it is made out to be, but like any other problem it has to be resolved,” Hopson said. “Maybe in the future there will be a better source of energy than nuclear energy.”

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