Refer back to earlier Nuclear 101 segments for a discussion of radiation (Types of Radiation Part 1 and Part 2 and Radioactive Half-Life).
It may take 100,000 or more years of radioactive decay for high level nuclear waste to become inert- no longer radioactive and hazardous. Because of this, all nuclear waste storage options are only intended to be temporary while a long-term solution is arranged. The current nuclear waste problem exists because temporary storage facilities are filling up without an available location to move the waste for permanent disposal. Deep underground waste repositories are intended as a permanent solution to the nuclear waste problem. However, these waste repositories are controversial, thereby prolonging the nuclear waste problem with expensive and slow progressing construction of a geologically and politically acceptable permanent solution.
A permanent waste repository is only feasible in a geologically stable location. A stable location would be dry, with low ground water movement (water can be corrosive to storage canisters), and low chances of large earthquakes. Remote monitoring systems would be established deep within these repositories that may measure 500 meters below surface level. However, because it may take more than 100 thousand years for radioactivity to decay, it may not be feasible to expect constant monitoring in the future. Therefore, the stability of these sites must be projected far into the future- which clearly is not an easy feat. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) states:
“The fundamental design objective of geological repositories is to confine the waste and to isolate it from the environment. Adequate long-term safety must be provided without reliance on active controls or ongoing maintenance. Geological repositories are therefore designed to be passively safe, such that continued indefinite institutional control is not required to assure safety.”
Thus, the IAEA suggests multiple layers of enclosures for all waste placed into the repository. Containers made of long-lasting material, compacted by bentonite clay (which acts as a moisture absorbent), further protected by a stable host bedrock, such as non-porous crystalline bedrock as illustrated in the image below, are technical considerations the IAEA recommends would provide the most assurances against radiation releases.
Australia does not currently generate nuclear energy. However, the country’s production of radioactive medical isotopes does generate nuclear waste. A nuclear waste storage site was nominated at Muckaty Station, indigenous territory in northern Australia, in 2007. Seven years of legal proceedings ensued with the claim that not all traditional landowners had been consulted about the waste site, nor had they given consent to construction, and that it had become a contentious issue among local clan members. In June 2014 the court withdrew the nomination of Muckaty Station as a waste site in favor of a more inclusive decision making process that will not violate the rights of any landowners.
Since 2009 Australia has fully endorsed the United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a document that declares individual and collective rights for the world's 370 million indigenous people. Article 29.2 of the Declaration states: "States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands of territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent." Educating and informing is important, but the word 'consent' is stressed as highly significant prior to making changes regarding use of indigenous territory. Although UNDRIP is not a legally binding document, within the context of the Muckaty Station conflict, Australia has shown that it is attempting to hold itself accountable for the treatment of its indigenous population.
Continued Reading: PNA's Executive Director, Tammy Murphy, and current Law, Social Movement, & Development Fellow, Harmony Todd, have both published journal articles on indigenous rights which can be accessed online:
Tammy Murphy, “Courses and Recourses” Exploring Indigenous Peoples’ Land Reclamation in Search of Fresh Solutions for Israelis and Palestinians, Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict.
Harmony Todd, "Conflict Assessment of the El Diquís Hydroelectric Project: When Renewable Energy Poses Environmental Threats & Human Rights Violations," Peace and Conflict Review.
The next segment of Nuclear 101 will provide a recap of the nuclear fuel cycle that this blog series has focused on thus far from mining to enrichment and reprocessing to waste disposal.
Australia’s first nuclear waste dump in limbo after Muckaty Station ruled out
Bob Hawke: nuclear waste storage could end Indigenous disadvantage
Finland's Crazy Plan to Make Nuclear Waste Disappear
House rejects bids to abandon nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain
The Swedish Nuclear Fuel Management Programme
IAEA: Storage and Disposal of Spent Fuel and High Level Radioactive Waste
Radioactive waste repository & store for Australia