RSK’s Climate Realities series explores the wide-ranging repercussions of the latest IPCC Reports across our global business. In this Insight, Lara Duro, Amphos21 CEO, examines the role that nuclear power can play in generating the energy needed to respond to the climate crisis and dispels some of the myths about tackling nuclear waste.
What is the role of nuclear in the current energy mix?
Nuclear energy is already a key component of global energy requirements. According to the latest IEA report, nuclear accounts for 10% of electrical power generation for the planet. The deployment of nuclear generation, though, is very different across the various regions of the world. While France generates more than 70% of its energy through nuclear fission, there is no nuclear generation in its neighbouring country Italy, nor in the more distant South America, except for Argentina and Brazil, which have nuclear shares in their electricity mixes of below 3%. It is also interesting to consider that non-nuclear countries such as Italy and Denmark obtain about 10% of their energy from nuclear imports.
The EU has recently incorporated nuclear energy in the green taxonomy, recognising it as an energy source with low greenhouse-gas emissions. The current geopolitical situation, together with the urgency of achieving the pledge-to-net-zero goals, has driven some countries to reconsider their nuclear phase-outs and start planning for either new nuclear builds, long-term operation of their existing nuclear plants, or deployment of Generation IV nuclear reactors.
How should we deal with nuclear waste?
Radioactive waste has commonly been used as one of the main arguments against nuclear energy. Independently of any nuclear energy strategy, however, most countries must deal with the existence of radioactive waste, as it is produced by a variety of radiation applications besides electricity generation. Medicine, agriculture, research, space exploration, environmental techniques, and many industrial processes provide just a few examples of the application of radiation. Thus, whether or not the world decides to pursue nuclear electricity generation, radioactive waste will still represent a legacy to manage, preferably before leaving it to future generations.
Radioactive waste is classified according to its level of radioactivity. Most non-electricity applications of radioactivity, as well as nuclear power plant dismantling and decommissioning, produce very low, low, or intermediate level waste (VLL&ILW). These are materials the radioactivity of which will reach the natural background level in about 300 years. They are usually stored in centralised surface or underground facilities built for this purpose. Examples of surface facilities for VLL&ILW can be found in Europe (Spain, France, the UK, etc.), the USA and Asia. Underground facilities are also built to host these types of waste in, for example, Sweden and Finland. Their operation, maintenance and supervision are standard industrial practices, extremely well regulated, both national and internationally, and generally well accepted by local communities.
High level waste (HLW) constitutes 3% of the total radioactive waste in the world. It mainly consists of used nuclear fuel discharged from nuclear plants when their electricity yield is insufficiently high to be commercially exploited in the nuclear reactor. To supply the electricity an average person needs, about 5 g of fuel are needed per year. Despite constituting low volumes, the radioactivity of used fuel will take thousands of years to reach natural background radioactivity levels. Therefore, isolation of this waste from the biosphere is a must. The engineering and technical solution to HLW management has been the object of research, development and innovation since the first nuclear power plant was set in operation in Obninsk, the Soviet Union, on 27 June 1954. At the time of writing (July 2022), more than 400 reactors are in operation in the world. Countries with nuclear reactors have temporary storage sites for HLW close to the reactors, and some have also built centralised storage facilities to host the HLW from several reactors. There is a general international consensus that the most advanced and secure technological implementation for the long-term management of HLW is its disposal in deep, stable geological formations. To date, no deep geological repositories for civil HLW are in operation, but, in 1999, the USA implemented the Waste Isolation Plant for transuranic waste originating from its military programme. The countries working towards implementing deep geological disposal of high-level waste that are furthest advanced are Finland, which is waiting for authorisation from the government for the operation of Olkiluoto, the Finnish “one-of-a-kind” repository built in granitic rock; Sweden, the government of which approved, in January 2022, the construction of a deep geological repository, also in granitic host rock; and France, which is preparing the process for the licensing of a repository in clays in the area of Meeuse-Haute-Marne.
Although we cannot trivialise the relevance of the proper management of nuclear waste, nor can we use the argument that plausible solutions, in scientific, technical and engineering terms, do not exist. The most restrictive measures apply, and the highest-level and most up-to-date methods, techniques and knowledge are at the service of the extremely sound risk assessments used in the radioactive waste management industry. Information and communication efforts to openly convey this message to the general public are extremely important to enable nuclear to fulfil its potential as a future energy source.
Nuclear waste can be safely managed, and our society now has the opportunity to take the necessary steps and decisions to properly manage this legacy and contribute to the sustainability of our planet.
Amphos 21 started its operations in 1994 in Barcelona, Spain, offering expert advice for radioactive waste management in Sweden and in Spain. Since then, we have expanded our activities in this sector to many other countries and we now offer expert consulting to waste managers and radioactive waste producers in more than 20 countries all over the world. We are extremely proud of contributing at every step towards a scientifically and technologically based solution for radioactive waste management.