Debates on whether or not we should use them separately, one of the inevitable consequences of having nuclear power plants in operation is managing your waste. And these cannot be kept in any container or warehouse: depending on their longevity and radioactivity they require a complicated infrastructure and a huge budget.
In the world there are dozens of so-called “nuclear graveyards”, radioactive waste treatment centers that receive the waste from nuclear power plants and the materials used to manufacture the world’s atomic arsenal. And in the worst case, you also have to talk about places where radioactive garbage has simply been dumped in order not to get closer to them.
But where are those places? Which one is the biggest? We will list the largest nuclear cemeteries in the world where you will probably never set foot (and you probably don’t want to do it of your own free will).
The Hanford complex
This complex located near the city of Seattle is considered the largest nuclear waste warehouse in the world. Its 177 tanks conserve 200,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste, making Hanford the most polluted place in America. It is known that it was the place where he obtained the plutonium to make Fat Man, the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki during World War II.
Hanford’s tanks have leaked over time, the last of them this April. The US government has been forced to invest millions of dollars and decades to contain pollution and clean up the area as much as possible so as not to endanger the inhabitants of nearby towns. Richland, for example, earns more than half of his income working in the Hanford area.
The bottom of the Kara Sea
The day we hear about this in the headlines of all the media will be to receive very bad news. The Kara Sea in northern Russia has been the landfill of the nuclear submarines of the former Soviet Union for years.
The result is a deposit of (known to be) at least 14 nuclear submarines resting on the seafloor. Water erosion leaves its reactors slowly but inexorably exposed.
When that happens it will cause marine pollution that some consider to be unprecedented, since we are talking about more than six times the radiation from the Hiroshima bomb gradually being exposed. The threat even affects future Arctic routes: what fisherman or sailor would want to cross those waters?
The Atlantic Trench
Do you think there is only radioactive waste in the seas of Russia due to the excesses of the Cold War? Well, be careful with this data: we have more than 140,000 tons of nuclear waste distributed 200 km from the Asturian coast and 400 km from the Galician coast. They are more than 4,000 meters under the sea, and not much surveillance work is dedicated to them.
The waste comes from the UK, Belgium, Holland, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany and Italy. As in the case of the Kara Sea, corrosion and erosion of seawater could cause these drums to seriously affect marine fauna. As you can see in the video above, several Galician fishing boats joined forces with Greenpeace to prevent the dumping of waste in that area.
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, New Mexico
The WIPP, as it is often called, is the first deep geological repository designed to store high-level nuclear waste for thousands of years. It has more than 185,000 containers of radioactive garbage, stored 660 meters below ground of the state of New Mexico.
Some time ago we talked about that warehouse, and there we already said that it will not be complete until 2070. At that time it will be closed and will be protected thanks to the geological stability of the area.
The complex has not been accident-free, but the United States will continue to store waste in it until about 2035. It will be at that time that everything will be covered under layers of earth, concrete and salt that will permanently protect the environment from any future radioactive releases.
Planta de Lanyu, Taiwán
The “Orchid Island”, southeast of Taiwan, is a tourist attraction for the country but it is also the place for a warehouse of low-level radioactive waste. In 1996 he stopped accepting the arrival of waste, when his complex had already more than 100,000 barrels according to its official website. You can still consider going to their tourist spots, since they are far enough away so that you are not exposed to radiation.
Drigg Low Level Waste Repository
Cumbria County, UK, opened in 1959 and expanded in 2010. It has a low-level waste warehouse that houses more than one million cubic meters of radioactive waste.
There have been no major problems with this warehouse, but it is already known that global warming and rising sea levels can pose a danger to the complex.
The ZWILAG complex, in Switzerland
Switzerland has this radioactive waste warehouse in Würenlingen, very close to the southern German border. In their facilities they rest 5,000 barrels and 120 containers of nuclear waste, spread over 200 cells. If you dare, you can take a sightseeing tour to see it in all its glory.
Bonus: El Cabril, the only Spanish nuclear cemetery
This may not be one of the largest, but it is worth mentioning that in Spain we have a complex specialized in storing and treating radioactive waste from our nuclear power plants. It is located 43 km from the town of Hornachuelos, in Córdoba; and uses earthquake-proof concrete containers to store 3,000 drums of waste.
It is expected that this waste will take 300 years to stop being dangerously radioactive, and that El Cabril will be completely full around the year 2030. 124 permanent employees work at the facilities with about 90 temporary employees on average daily.
The future: bury waste hundreds of meters under the ground
Continuing to build warehouses like these is not the long-term plan for conserving the planet’s nuclear waste. Now plans are to build more deep geological stores like the WIPP, to storing that waste for thousands of years in a sealed environment without having to worry too much about them.
The high depth of these warehouses will guarantee that the radioactivity of the waste does not reach the surface, and that its heat does not deteriorate too much all the layers of materials above them. So far, it is the only very long-term reliable way for nuclear waste not to harm the environment or people.
Beyond the WIPP, the most advanced construction of a deep geological store is that of Onkalo in Finland. It is expected to enter operations from 2023.
Images | Kilian Karger, Yannis Papanastasopoulos, Energy.gov, WikiMedia and Francesco Ungaro