Research, Technology

Nuclear energy: how to dispose of uranium?

The type of energy that is released fromthe central part of atoms - nuclei, consisting of neutrons and protons, is called nuclear. Its source is two physical processes: fission, that is, the disintegration of an atom into several parts, and synthesis, the fusion of atoms. These processes are used to produce electricity, without which it is impossible to imagine modern civilization, because it is necessary to create electricity. Remarkably, modern nuclear power plants produce renewable, clean energy that does not pollute the air or emit greenhouse gases. But as with all industries and manufacturing, the use of nuclear energy generates extremely toxic materials, contact with which can lead to burns, an increased risk of cancer, blood disorders and bone destruction.

Uranium mining is dangerous, and radiation is harmful to health

radioactive material - a set of unstable atomic nuclei that lose energy and can affect many materials around them, including living organisms and the environment.


  • 1 Atomic fission as a source of energy
  • 2 Nuclear waste
  • 3 Disposal of nuclear waste
  • 4 Direct disposal and storage
  • 5 Transition to nuclear power

Atomic fission as a source of energy

The idea of ​​nuclear power originated in the 1930syears, when the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi first showed that neutrons can split atoms. Fermi was the creator of the world's first nuclear reactor, Chicago Woodpile-1, designed to test the feasibility of a controlled nuclear chain reaction.

As one of the "founding fathers of the nuclear bomb", Fermi made a great contribution to the development of nuclear physics, elementary particle physics, as well as quantum and statistical mechanics.

A nuclear reactor or power plant is a machinemanages nuclear fission to generate electricity. The most common fuel is uranium, a metal found throughout the world. After mining, uranium is processed and then used as fuel. The reason for this choice is clear - uranium atoms are easily split.

Uranium is also found in rocks. But the specific type of uranium used to produce nuclear power is called U-235 and is rare.

Decaying uranium atoms inside a nuclear reactoremit tiny particles called fission products. It is they who start the nuclear chain reaction, ultimately creating heat. However, mining and subsequent processing of uranium lead to the formation of radioactive waste.

More on the topic: How is radioactive uranium mined and what is it used for?

Nuclear waste

Since the dawn of nuclear power, nuclearthe waste did not harm people. A common misconception is that since certain parts of nuclear waste remain radioactive for billions of years, the threat must persist throughout that period. But it's not.

Radiation is an inevitable part of life on our planet.

A key factor in understanding why nuclear waste storage facilities do not pose a threat to health, is related to the amount of materials that would be found in the environment in the event of a leak.

See also: Vavilov-Cherenkov effect: what you need to know?

Radioactive waste is mainlyprotective clothing, tools and any other materials that have come into contact with radioactive dust (90% of the total). Given that radioactive waste is durable, contaminated clothing and tools can remain radioactive for thousands of years. Fortunately, these wastes contain only 1% of the total radioactivity.

The first nuclear power plant was launched in 1954 near the city of Obninsk, Moscow Region.

In total, researchers distinguish three types of nuclearwaste classified according to their radioactivity: low, medium and high levels. Thus, high-level waste mainly consists of spent nuclear fuel and makes up only 3% of the total volume of waste.

Don't miss: How does a nuclear power plant work? Are nuclear power plants dangerous?

Disposal of nuclear waste

There are two main strategies in the worldwaste management: some countries have been reprocessing spent nuclear fuel for decades; others choose direct disposal (more on that below). In essence, this is a strategic decision made at the national level and mainly driven by political and economic as well as technological considerations.

Unlike any other industry that producesenergy, the nuclear sector takes full responsibility for waste disposal. Since nuclear fuel is energy-intensive, a small amount of fuel is required to produce a huge amount of electricity.

A nuclear reactor is an installation in which a self-sustaining controlled nuclear fission chain reaction is carried out.

Interesting fact
A typical nuclear reactor uses about 200tons of uranium every year. Sophisticated processes allow some uranium and plutonium to be re-enriched or reprocessed, greatly reducing the amount of mining, recovery and processing.

On average, waste from a reactor providinga person's electricity needs for a year, about the size of a brick. By comparison, a 1,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant produces about 300,000 tons of ash and over 6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Direct disposal and storage

Direct disposal is a strategy in which spent nuclear fuel is classified as waste and disposed of in underground storage without any processing.

Spent fuel is placed in canisters,which, in turn, are placed in tunnels and subsequently sealed with stones and clay. Wastes from processing - the so-called fission products - also remain in storage. But there are fewer and fewer free storage spaces (for example, in Finland).

As for the used uranium, itmust be stored in special containers similar to large swimming pools. The water cools the fuel and insulates the outer surface from contact with radioactivity.

Storage and processing of nuclear waste is strictly regulated by governments

To date, the recycling of wastemainly focused on the recovery of plutonium and uranium, since these elements can be reused in conventional reactors. The separated plutonium and uranium can then be mixed with fresh uranium and turned into new fuel rods.

You will be interested: Nuclear or renewable energy - which is better?

Transition to nuclear power

Since nuclear power plants producerenewable, clean energy, do not pollute the air or emit greenhouse gases, they can be built in urban or rural areas and not worry about the environment around. And yet, disputes over the disposal and storage of nuclear waste continue - in view of the problems with climate change, proposals for a transition to nuclear energy are being heard more and more often.

Since nuclear power is dependent on extractedlimited resources, operating reactors do not contribute to global warming. Proponents of nuclear power also argue that it should be seen as one of the solutions to climate change.

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To provide people with the electricity they need for a comfortable life, thousands of power plants operate all over the world.

Their opponents are not so optimistic, noting thatNuclear power cannot be considered as a green energy source, as its use is associated with risks of accidents, radioactive contamination and vulnerability due to rapid climate change.

By the way, do you know what is the most radioactive place on Earth? More about why this title does not belong to Chernobyl, my colleague Ramis Ganiev told, I recommend reading it.