Nuclear energy is one of the cleanest, most efficient, and most available sources of power on earth. To generate one kilowatt-hour of energy —the amount a modern household consumes in 48 minutes— nuclear power plants only emit 12 grams of carbon dioxide— enough to fill about three two-litre soda bottles. Meanwhile, to produce the same amount of energy, coal plants emit 820 grams of CO2—about a full bathtub’s worth.
Factoring in the environmental cost of production, nuclear energy is cleaner than hydropower, than geothermal, than solar, than really any energy source except wind. But that doesn’t necessarily mean nuclear is the long-term solution for the world because nuclear material is perhaps the most poisonous substance on earth.
Two times in history have nuclear power plants leaked a significant amount of radiation—in 1986 in Chernobyl, Ukraine and in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan. 31 people died in Chernobyl with at least a further 4,000 expected to contract early lethal cancer due to the radiation.
Fukushima was better contained with only two deaths, both unrelated to radiation, and only 130 early cancer deaths expected, but additionally, each site still today has massive exclusion zones where humans cannot live due to ongoing radiation. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from their homes and will never be allowed to return.
The economic damage of Chernobyl is estimated at nearly $250 billion dollars—significantly more than the GDP of Ukraine. The Fukushima disaster, meanwhile, having taken place is a much more populated and developed area, is estimated to set Japan back over $500 billion dollars—a full 10% of their GDP.
In addition, uranium, the element most commonly used in nuclear reactors, is not in limitless supply. Using present-day extraction methods, there is only about a 230 year supply of uranium left. Many would say nuclear is only a short-term solution to reduce carbon emissions until truly sustainable energy can become commonplace, but the biggest problem with nuclear energy is not the risk of meltdown, it’s not the supply of uranium, it is the nuclear waste.
All current commercial nuclear power plants work through the process of nuclear fission. As a radioactive element decays, the individual atoms split into multiple, but when that happens the reaction also releases energy. There are plenty of different designs of nuclear reactors, but in general, they capture the released energy by using it to heat up water into steam which runs through turbines that spin generators.
The nuclear element used is typically uranium which, after about six to eight years of usage in a nuclear power plant will have released enough of its energy that it is no longer useful in nuclear reactors, but that doesn’t mean it’s done emitting energy. The fuel rods will remain radioactive enough to emit a lethal dose for tens or hundreds of thousands of years past their removal.
So the question is, what do you do with them? The answer is simple—put them somewhere where they can stay, undisturbed, isolated, forever, but that’s not all that easy. In fact, no nuclear waste worldwide is currently in what is considered long-term storage. Every bit of nuclear waste in existence is in temporary storage facilities to be used until a long-term solution is built.
Most of that nuclear waste is stored in pools of water. Water does a decently good job of shielding radiation so this is an inexpensive and easy way of storing the rods. Usually, these pools are physically inside nuclear power plants. So, when spent fuel is removed from the reactor, it’s put directly into the water and left there.
The radioactive material, since it’s still emitting energy, it continues to heat up the water, but cooling systems and pumps keep the water below boiling temperature, but to do that the plant needs power. If the power fails and the backup generators fail, the pumps and cooling systems stop working so the water heats up and can boil off. The water is what blocks the radiation so, without water, the radiation just goes right out into the environment.
In fact, exactly that’s what happened at Fukushima. Both the primary and backup power sources failed so the pumps and cooling systems for the spent fuel pools couldn’t run, leaving the water to heat up. The situation was brought under control before enough water had boiled off to release significant amounts of radiation into the environment, but had it not been, thousands could have been killed.
Once the nuclear waste has cooled down in storage pools for ten to twenty years, it typically is encased in casks. These concrete and steel containers block in radiation, but this solution is far from permanent. It does not consider earthquakes, it cannot withstand tsunamis, and it would not work without humans.
These casks require security and they require maintenance. Without humans, they could easily be damaged or breached over time and release radiation into the environment. Modern humans have only existed for about 200,000 years, so one can hardly be sure that the species will survive for the millions of years that the most toxic nuclear waste will continue to emit radiation.
What’s more, one can hardly expect that the dominant civilizations that have nuclear technology today will continue to exist for even thousands of years. The Roman Empire was once without a doubt the most powerful civilization on earth. Scholars even believe that it is the most powerful civilization to have ever existed on earth—more powerful than the US, than Europe, than any modern civilization, but it fell, and so too will the west.
Therefore, long-term nuclear waste storage needs to last longer than any political structure, it needs to work without the supervision of humans, it needs to be truly and unequivocally permanent.
Finland is building just that. This region is largely devoid of natural disasters. It doesn’t have earthquakes, it doesn’t see tsunamis, it really doesn’t encounter any natural phenomenon that could damage a nuclear waste storage site, especially if it’s 1,500 feet underground.
Beneath an island on the Finnish Baltic Sea coast, the country is digging. They are building the very first permanent nuclear waste storage facility in the world in the stable bedrock 1,500 feet below. Currently, they are just finishing their dig down then very soon, in 2020, they will start filling the facility with nuclear waste.
They will dig long tunnels with small holes in which they will place casks of nuclear waste then backfill the tunnels with clay to be left for an eternity. With this system, there is near zero risks of nuclear material leaking out into the groundwater and, once it’s filled in the year 2120, it can just be left, forever.
Because the material will be so far down and so difficult to get to, no human management will be necessary once completed. No security, no maintenance, nothing which means it should be truly secure, but before leaving it, they do need to fight against one thing—human nature.
As curious beings, it is hard to combat a person’s urge for discovery. If someone finds a mysterious structure from thousands of years ago, it would just be natural to want to open it up, and that’s a problem for nuclear waste sites. We essentially did just that with the pyramids in Egypt. These structures were built as the final, permanent resting places for the elites of Egypt and we opened them up because we were curious.
Opening the nuclear storage facilities would release radiation into a future civilization, so we have to tell them to leave the sites alone, but that’s easier said than done. The US Department of Energy commissioned a study on how to communicate the danger into the far future. The key is to create a message that conveys how uninteresting, how unimportant, and how dangerous nuclear waste is.
They settled on the following text: Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honour… no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger. The danger is in a particular location… it increases toward a centre… the centre of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us. The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours. The danger is to the body, and it can kill. The form of the danger is an emanation of energy. The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.
The idea would be to translate a message like this into every United Nations language— Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. There is a reasonable hope that, at least in the next couple thousand years, one of those languages would be understood. But in the scope of hundreds of thousands of years, there is just little expectation that these languages would survive.
There is not even a reasonable expectation that humans would survive. So, you need to convey the same message without language. What the study suggests is to further push the message by building a landscape that conveys danger. It could be a scene of thorns, or spikes or forbidding blocks.
To satiate the discoverer’s curiosity, it’s also suggested to add monoliths explaining the history of the site through pictographs. Also included would be images like this, engraved in stone, conveying that the substance has danger that will be passed onto humans if touched, but the difficulty of this is that it very well might not be humans exploring earth 100,000 years from now. It could be a species that doesn’t recognize the likeness of what might be a long-extinct species.
What some have suggested is to just let the site be forgotten, to not mark it at all, to just seal it up and leave, but having something that significant disappear isn’t simple.
The site in Finland is designed to not need security or oversight, but its current location is very well documented in a potentially irreversible way. With books and brains and the internet, records of the site might exist until at least the end of human civilization. To truly be forgotten, to truly be left as part of nature, so too must humans be forgotten.