Saturday, March 18, 2006

Nuclear Waste Disposal

Billions of dollars have been spent on preparing Yucca Mountain in Nevada for disposal of nuclear waste. Billions more will be spent on making it safe for storage because it’s a mountain and it’s above the water table. Mountains are formed by seismic upheavals and future seismic activity could cause degradation which could imperil the underlying water table over the thousands of years required for the radioactive material to decay.

It seems rather obvious that that there could be safer solutions to this problem. We currently pump billions of barrels of oil out of the ground to supply our energy needs. Nuclear power will be needed in ever greater quantities as the supply of oil is reduced. What replaces the oil that we pump from thousands of feet below the earth’s surface; usually water, or as is being researched now in North Dakota and Canada, carbon dioxide. These are pumped into the oil fields at their edges to displace the oil, increasing the field’s total yield. Once the field is pumped out these filler materials remain forever, thousands of feet below ground, never to bother anyone or anything again.

This raises the question of whether or not it would be feasible to use evacuated oil reservoirs to safely store nuclear wastes. There oil fields a couple miles underground in seismically inactivate areas of the Great Plains in western North Dakota and eastern Montana and Wyoming in a region called the Williston Basin. This also happens to be an area which is losing population as farms become larger, and which, because of its remoteness and inclement weather, is not very suitable for the development of other industries. Once these fields become depleted, economic conditions is this area will become even more dire.

If methods can be developed to grind nuclear waste into a fine particulate it could be mixed and heavily diluted with water pumped from the depleted fields and reinserted into them, using the existing water insertion points on the edge of the field and existing wells in the center as the water source. Because of the depth of the storage area and low seismic activity in the region, there should much less concern for safety, compared to the currently proposed Yucca Mountain site. There is a certain irony in using a site that was a previous energy source as a solution to waste problems associated with a new energy source. It’s sort of a two for one benefit that seems like a natural solution.