Every day, the world over, large amounts of high-level radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants is placed in interim storage, which is vulnerable to natural disasters, man-made disasters, and to societal changes. In Finland the world’s first permanent repository is being hewn out of solid rock - a huge system of underground tunnels - that must last 100,000 years as this is how long the waste remains hazardous.
Nuclear waste is produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and enrichment, to reactor operation and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Much of this nuclear waste will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, leaving a poisonous legacy to future generations.
Decommissioning nuclear facilities will also create large amounts of radioactive wastes. Many of the world's nuclear sites will require monitoring and protection for centuries after they are closed down.
The global volume of spent fuel was 220,000 tonnes in the year 2000, and is growing by approximately 10,000 tonnes annually. Despite billions of dollars of investment in various disposal options, the nuclear industry and governments have failed to come up with a feasible and sustainable solution.
Most of the current proposals for dealing with highly radioactive nuclear waste involve burying it in deep underground sites. Whether the storage containers, the store itself, or the surrounding rocks will offer enough protection to stop radioactivity from escaping in the long-term is impossible to predict.
An example of where industry plans have been exposed as flawed is the proposed dump site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, US. After nearly 20 years of research and billions of dollars of investment, not one gram of spent fuel has so far been shipped to the site from nuclear reactors across the US. Major uncertainties in the geological suitability for waste disposal at the site remain, with on-going investigations into manipulation of scientific data and the threat of legal action by the State government.
In addition to high-level waste problems, there are numerous examples of existing disposal sites containing low level waste which are already leaking radiation into the environment. Drigg in the UK and CSM in Le Hague, France being just two.
Currently no options have been able to demonstrate that waste will remain isolated from the environment over the tens to hundreds of thousands of years. There is no reliable method to warn future generations about the existence of nuclear waste dumps.