The United Nations Secretary General’s recent warning about a South Pacific interim radioactive waste storage facility leaking radiation is perhaps the loudest alarm call yet against keeping such wastes on the surface of the planet, when we could be more safely disposing of the waste deep underground.
Many environmentalists are opposed to geological disposal because we cannot be sure that deep geological disposal will isolate and contain radioactive waste for millennia. They argue that we should keep the waste in monitored surface facilities until a better alternative solution is found.
While it is true that scientists cannot offer a 100% guarantee for the next million years when burying radioactive waste deep underground, the South Pacific facility highlighted by the UN Secretary General is evidence that there is practically a 100% certainty of a dangerous radiation leak somewhere on the planet during that time if we keep the waste on the surface for a prolonged period.
It is a question of risk management. Deep geological disposal reduces risk to minimal proportions, and scientists can provide safety assessments with confidence for at least the first few centuries. Such high levels of surety are possible because the underground environment has not changed in billions or millions of years and will not be affected by future surface climate change or human activity.
However, the same levels of surety are not possible when it comes to the stability of the surface environment and human society over the coming centuries — indeed, as evidenced by the radiation leak from this facility, climate and human society changes have already adversely affected the surface environment, in just 60 years!
If something is going to go wrong (and experience suggests we should be cautious and prepare accordingly) we have a simple choice: do we want a dangerous radiation leak to happen on the surface where we all live, or in a contained space isolated deep beneath the surface far away from humans and the surface environment?
We have already seen this risk choice in action. In 2014 a package leaked radioactivity in the US’ deep geological repository. The repository needed to be shut for four years, but all the harmful radiation was kept isolated 600m below the surface and did not pose a risk to people living at the surface. After investigation, it was discovered that the package had only recently been placed underground. The package had been a hidden ticking time bomb, and fortunately for everyone it went off deep underground and out of harm’s way. Had it ruptured while on the surface, the human and environmental consequences could have been catastrophic.
Then in 2018, radioactive waste which had been stored on the surface for 60 years at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) had to be moved into new packages, as the original packaging was decaying and becoming unsafe. During this repackaging process the old canister ruptured, releasing radioactivity. Fortunately, again, there was no risk to local people. If the US had a permanent geological repository, the waste could have been moved underground and no further repackaging may have been required. However, the longer we retain surface storage, the more often we will have to remove radioactive waste from ageing and decaying canisters and place it in new, safer packages. Every time we open an old package we risk opening pandora’s box — and there are hundreds of thousands of such packages around the world. Can we be 100% certain that for each of the millions of times that this will need to be done all over the world over the next few centuries that this won’t result in at least one mistake or accident?
In the first incident we were protected because the incident happened underground (though could have happened on the surface). In the second, safety standards protected us this time, but we cannot give a 100% public safety guarantee for the millions of times in the future when we will have to repackage waste in order to keep it on the surface.
The nuclear sector will, rightly, point out the safety standards and procedures that they now have in place internationally to make interim surface storage safe. The South Pacific facility was built in the 1960s, when radioactive waste technology and science was in its infancy — and when our forefathers did not give the attention to effective radioactive waste management and disposal that we now do. But rising sea levels and a largely forgotten facility in a distant unpopulated atoll show what can happen even over a relatively short period of time as climate changes and human society errs.
There is no present and immediate danger from interim surface stores. They are, to all intents and purposes, safe. But they are not a long-term solution when faced with the inevitable ice ages that are coming, and the fragility of human society. With Brexit, the UK has no idea what the next 6 months will hold, let alone the next 6, 60 or 600 years. Rocks at depth evidentially provide a more stable and reliable protective environment over the long-term than mercurial human society.
For all the concerns that some environmentalists have about geological disposal, compared to keeping radioactive waste on the surface indefinitely, burying it as far away from the surface as possible seems a much less risky proposition in every scenario. More than that, it also means that this generation takes appropriate responsibility for its actions/mess rather than leaving future generations to pick up the tab for our poor behaviours.