“Everyone knows” dry cask storage and Yucca Mountain are the only ways. Even though that is not accurate.
We will have to walk people through how any other method works, for it to be accepted and implemented. We will have to educate environmental people so they understand what we are proposing will have us and the planet safe, or much safer than what we’ve been doing.
What are the types of radiation produced in a nuclear reactor? Alpha particles are helium ions, add an electron and they are chemically inert helium; in the reactor they will slow down by bumping into other atoms (in LWR, water; in MSR, salt), outside a reactor alpha particles may be completely stopped by a sheet of paper or thin layer of plastic. Beta particles are high-speed electrons, in a reactor they could be absorbed by alpha particles, or any metal; outside a reactor by a thin layer of aluminum shielding. Gamma rays are similar to X-rays, both are high-energy electromagnetic radiation (aka light), which can only be reduced by substantial mass, such as a very thick layer of lead. Sunburn is mostly beta particles (high energy light) stopped by your outer layer of skin. Much of the danger of radioactive materials is from their chemical properties; for example if they chemically attach to food and are ingested, the radiation is absorbed by your internal organs not your external skin.
We will have to give specifics, to counter the coal/oil industry’s objections to eliminating or even reducing nuclear waste — they have a lot of money and power invested in this problem remaining; they benefit from our fear of nuclear waste, they fuel the environmental outcries against nuclear waste.
How do we deal with nuclear waste so it doesn’t harm living beings? A quick answer is “fission all the uranium and transuranic elements, which can be done in a molten salt reactor and a few other kinds of reactor, and then store what’s left until it isn’t dangerous any more. That will take 10 years for most of the waste; for 17% of the waste, it will take 350 years.”
For a LFTR, 800kg of uranium/plutonium/thorium per gigawatt-year electricity, leaves 185kg (300 pounds) of 350-year waste. The 10-year stuff is what those “cooling ponds” at LWR sites are for, but there are other ways; the 350 year stuff can go in “dry cask storage” in a deep hole though that may not be the best solution if we were to evaluate the storage methods.
In a molten salt reactor, the fission byproducts can be fairly easily removed from the reactor, while the reactor is operating, since the fuel is molten and could circulate through chemical extraction equipment, already known and in use in other industries. All elements with long half-lives would be left in the reactor to either fission, or to decay (from neutron bombardment) into short-half-life elements. Or different designs of molten salt reactors could operate for decades without processing fission byproducts, and remove them when the reactor is decommissioned; probably the reactor would be allowed to cool until the salt solidified, and the entire reactor shipped to a waste extraction facility, a 200MW MSR would fit in a standard truck/rail shipping container.
But the quick answer is not enough for convincing people to approve and implement a method for dealing with dangerous waste, that will certainly cost a lot of money (though much less than a Hanford Vitrification Plant or Yucca Mountain — costs a lot more to store anything for 100,000+ years than for 350 years!).
What elements/isotopes are produced? In what quantities, per gigawatt-year electricity? What is the full decay chain for each isotope? How long is each isotope radioactive? What radiation type (alpha, beta, gamma) and what strength? What is the radiation dosage?
(Include brief summary of how doses compare to working in a granite building or getting a dental x-ray or trans-Atlantic flight or solar flare or coal plant or the radon in natural gas.)
What is the environmental and human health consequence of a failure to properly store each of these isotopes? How biologically toxic is each element before and after radiation levels have decayed below background levels (with comparison to coal/oil)?
What are the top 2-3 methods for dealing with each of those isotopes? Which isotopes can be stored together, using the same method? Which isotopes can’t be stored together even though the same storage method works?
How do we verify that the storage method has been applied correctly? What is the probability of a failure? How will we detect a storage failure, to fix it promptly?
How long is this storage method good for, and how do we re-store the isotope if needed? (Many isotopes need to be stored less than 1 year, maybe there are very good inexpensive storage methods that work extremely well for 9 months so we “switch containers” at 6 months?)
How would each element be stored after low-radiation levels, compared to existing usage or disposal techniques for that element by other industries?
How does this meet or exceed the requirements for current methods of storing LWR waste? How does this compare to the storage of coal/oil waste? (Coal industry does nothing to store the uranium in coal, since they got it classified as “naturally occurring radioactive material”. Coal ash contains many elements more harmful than uranium, yet is simply stored in ponds, landfills and abandoned mines.)
How would each storage method be tested and certified, compared to safety standards for coal/oil and LWR? Which of these methods are already certified for storing nuclear waste, vs. still need to be certified?
What is the cost of each method? What is the savings vs. current methods of storing LWR waste?
Can you see how 10 to 20 pages covering this, written very clearly for people who are not nuclear chemists, would make Congress and environmentalists more likely to think “these guys know what they’re talking about, that sounds like it would work, and if other scientists and engineers agree it would work, then I think we should do this?”
Who gains from radiation scares?
News agencies — If it bleeds it leads
Oil, gas, coal industries (follow the money)
Radiation protection industry
Solar panel manufacturers (even though molten salt reactors would be excellent base load power for when sun isn’t shining)
Wind turbine companies (though wind is one of the least dense energy sources, so we’d spend a fortune on materials, construction, maintenance, repair)
Renewable energy advocates (though modern nuclear power reactors produce excellent base load power, cleaner than fossil fuels, and “all-renewable” costs over 10x more)
Researchers seeking grants
Non-proliferation institutions (though nuclear power reactors produce waste useless for nuclear weapons)
Hiroshima, Nagasaki guilt assuagers (though nuclear energy doesn’t produce nuclear weapons)
Greenpeace, UCS, NRDC (well-meaning environmental groups, but we’d have less pollution using modern nuclear power or nuclear plus rooftop solar)
Dirty bombers (of course, there are many other things to make a dirty bomb with)