No Hole-istic Solution for Nuclear Waste

When I created this blog three years ago I was still in the early stages of my learning curve. I got the idea of asking readers to imagine a nuclear-free world could come by the centennial of the nuclear age on July 16, 2045. The reason was purely sentimental. My wife’s birthday is July 15th, so I thought we might still be alive and able to look back at the quixotic wish, and then compare it with what actually will have happened by then. 
I naively thought a nuclear-free world was possible, but it turns out that it could only be achieved if we restrict what we mean by “nuclear-free.” Even if we dismantle every bomb and shut down every power plant, we will still have to accept that we have moved into the very long era of nuclear waste management. The mad century of uranium mining, bomb-building and nuclear energy has made the world a more radioactive place than it was 100 million years ago. The wastes that have been left behind will endanger ecosystems for 100 thousand more years. In normal circumstances it would be laughable to promise that successive generations are going to manage a risk long into the future, but for nucleocrats it has become normal discourse. The absurdity is plain to see if you imagine a banker's reaction to my asking for a mortgage on the Taj Mahal. I doubt she would be impressed by a promise that my heirs ten generations into the future would make all the payments.
Remote rural towns, in this case one far removed
 from areas that use nuclear power, are favored
as candidates for "host" communities
Nonetheless, it is tempting to think there must be a solution. I get it. We like solutions. Every movie we pay twelve bucks to see ends with a solution. There must be one. But in life there are some mistakes that just can’t be undone. Burial would seem to be a solution, but impartial scientists have told us for years that it won’t work. The recent failure at the WIPP facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and previous failures in Germany, proved the point. As veteran nuclear scientist and industry critic Chris Busby has bluntly pointed out, there is nothing to do but guard and maintain it above ground, and preferably not move it around too much. This policy is called Rolling Stewardship and is supported by the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR), and many other civil society groups that are waking up to the dilemma posed by nuclear waste.
  Busby jokes that we could give Rolling Stewardship prestige appeal by giving the guards uniforms that their children would be proud of. We could professionalize the guardians and give them elite status to make waste management more likely to continue. This is not a satisfying solution, but it is what it is. This grim realization leads only to two logical conclusions: we should stop making the stuff and we never should have created it in the first place.
Unfortunately, the nuclear industry isn’t prepared to face up to reality. In recent years, in several countries, it has become more motivated to complete deep geologic depositories. It asks rural communities to “host” nuclear waste as if it were a convention of salesmen, and along with the offers come many promises of jobs and gifts to the community. The nuclear industry is accelerating these efforts now because it knows that the public must be convinced that there is a final “disposal” solution. The waste has sat above ground for too long now without being moved to the long-ago promised depositories. If the industry fails to convince, nuclear power has no future.
This is why the nuclear industry consistently turns a blind eye to citizens and scientists who point out the unpleasant fact that the security of geological disposal is impossible to guarantee even in the near future, let alone into the millenia that would be necessary. No one can say with certainty that the geological and hydrologic features of a burial site will not change over thousands of years. The wastes are active, which means they are still changing chemically and isotopically, so disposal containers are likely to corrode. In addition, moisture can leak into the site, the ground can shift, or heat can build up and cause fires and explosions or changes in the containers and support structures.
Communities that are being pressured to “host” geologic suppositories should bear this in mind. And excuse my use of the more accurate term. Indeed, when a hole is dug for disposal we are just “tearing a new one” for the planet and sticking waste in it. The waste will then be like a pill that is going to dissolve into the actual host—the ecosystem; not some bought-off community of humans who live on the earth for a short time.
In addition, I have a modest proposal for some terms prospective communities should demand for agreeing to take the waste. This is not the mafioso’s offer they can’t refuse. It is an offer they will definitely refuse, but it would be good to put it on the table just to make an essential rhetorical point.


1.     We want to know that the waste has a finite limit, so every nuclear power plant regulated by the state has to be shut down within five years.
2.     About 20 years later (perhaps longer), when every power plant in the state has been dismantled and sites have been remediated, we will permit the creation of a small-scale, experimental, so-called geologic “depository.”
3.     A small amount of waste material will be placed in the hole and monitored for 100 years.
4.     If this experiment is deemed successful, the rest of the project may proceed.
5.     The state must promise that it will not build nuclear weapons, nor sell uranium, and never again use nuclear energy in any form to generate electricity. We offer our land for this risky project as a sacrifice, as a possible resolution to the time of folly and hubris during which humans played with a fire they never should have lit.

Some might feel that the final point concedes too much. They might say that the small-scale experiment could appear to be succeeding after 100 years, but the site might fail later when it is fully packed. But as I mentioned above, this is just a rhetorical exercise. Most of the nuclear power regimes in the world have no intention of bringing their technology to a definitive end. Their express purpose in seeking a disposal solution is so that the nuclear energy industry can carry on and look good to the majority of the public that pays no close attention to this issue.There is no danger that they would actually agree to the terms above. The proposal would only serve to make their intentions explicit.
   Finally, spent fuel is only half of the nuclear waste problem, the one that nucleocrats care to talk about publicly. No one has a plan for the eternal catastrophes left behind at mining sites throughout the world (see the article by Sipho Kings, listed below).


Sasha Pyle and Joni Arends. “WIPP accident reveals serious problems.” Santa Fe New Mexican. June 2014.


  1. Hi Dennis -
    Are you aware that the US EPA is considering dose-allowance changes from nuclear plant emissions, etc.
    This post here explains it better than I can:
    Your writing is excellent, so if you could consider submitting a comment to the EPA or even linking one of your blog posts on the topic, it would be appreciated.
    Comments can be anonymous, and the commenting process is quick and easy:
    Deadline is August 3rd.

    1. Thanks for your feedback. That is a good suggestion to post a comment to the EPA. I'll do it soon, even though I'm not an American citizen :)