In My Opinion: Nuclear Waste Debate Fuelled By War In Ukraine

As Putin’s army unleashes unimaginable misery on the people of Ukraine, it seems trite to talk about the war’s impact on the world’s programmes to geologically dispose of our most harmful radioactive wastes. But the invasion is changing our world, including how publics will debate the geological disposal of such radwastes.

The evident risks that humans pose to surface-stored radioactive waste, the renaissance of fears about nuclear weapons, the urgent debate about energy security, the unchanging need to address climate change, and the likelihood of accelerated civil nuclear new build will all combine to reframe how societies discuss geological disposal in the future.

Geological disposal is about burying waste that remains harmfully radioactive for 100,000 years in specialised facilities up to 1km underground.  With a level of global scientific consensus akin to climate change, that burying it deep underground where it can naturally decay is much safer than keeping it on the surface.  Every major country is developing such facilities, with Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada leading the way, and an EU Parliament report calling it the ‘least worst’ environmental solution.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which has been taken over by Russian forces. There are concerns about safety. Picture from Energoatom Ukraine.

Events in Ukraine starkly reveal the environmental and public health risks of keeping such radioactive wastes on the surface.  As the world holds its breath over assaults on Chernobyl and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, less-well reported is the shelling, accidentally or otherwise, of radioactive waste facilities across Ukraine.  Much of this waste is ‘low-level’ (radioactive for much shorter time), but underlines the point that radwaste which is harmfully radioactive for 100,000 years needs to be buried deep underground, as far away as possible from the insanity of how humans sometimes behave.

Critics of geological disposal worry about an incident deep underground, while ignoring the risks of an incident overground, on the surface.  Any complacency about the long-term stability of the planet’s surface environment, and of human society, should be shattered by the invasion.  Any perception of an endlessly unchanging world has been ripped, in a matter of weeks.

In the weeks before the war, GDFWatch, in a series of articles and international podcasts, spoke about the relative risks of trusting the safe stewardship of radwaste for the next 100,000 years either to deep rock formations that have not changed in a billion years, or to humans on the surface.  Can anyone now present a cogent argument that, even if we get through this war, humans will never screw up again, in some way, during the next one hundred millennia?

Furthermore, Putin’s veiled threats has resurrected a seemingly forgotten issue for post-Cold War generations – nuclear weapons. Assuming we avoid nuclear armaggedon, any sustainable resolution to the current conflict will presumably require an updated global peace and security framework.  That may include at least the dawnings of multilateral nuclear disarmament. What to do with the radwaste from those weapons – leave on the surface awaiting the next Putin, or some other human misadventure?  Or bury deep underground where it can threaten us no more?

The infamous Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, which has also been captured by Russian forces. Picture from Mads Eneqvist on Unsplash.

This war makes clear the overwhelming environmental and ethical case for removing from the surface, and away from humanity, the high-level radwastes we already have from both civil and military nuclear sources. The question about whether we want to generate more new radioactive waste is where the public debate will become much trickier for any discussion about geological disposal.

The role of nuclear in delivering energy security and meeting climate change goals is about to become a much more prevalent public discussion than it has been in recent years.  The issues have always been there, but the wider public have not really engaged with the debate – until dependence on an energy supplier who wreaks war upon us has made it an urgent political issue.

What happens to nuclear waste. From The Infographics Show.

Even before the war, we were beginning to suffer the rising costs of imported fossil fuels.  Now, on both security and cost grounds, every country is considering how to make themselves less reliant on energy imports, and reassessing how they can generate more of their own energy.  Renewables are the answer, but how fast can they be introduced to address the often mutually-diverging public interests of meeting the climate change challenge, keeping the lights on, being energy ‘independent’, and all at a price we can afford?

There are no easy answers to any of this.  The publics in each country will have to make environmental, financial and energy security pay-offs at every turn. Renewables are not without their own ecological costs and risks, and can they service energy consumption demand in the short-to-medium term?  Nuclear may help in decarbonising energy production while keeping the lights on, but at what environmental and long-term waste disposal risks and affordable costs? 

Environmentalists around the world generally oppose geological disposal, as they perceive that having a route to the safe disposal of radioactive wastes ‘permits’ new nuclear build.  The only exception to this is Germany, where the Green Party supports geological disposal as the ‘least worst’ option.  No coincidence that Germany is the only major economy to have renounced future use of nuclear energy, so environmentalists can support the best environmental solution available, rather than oppose it.

Geological disposal can be a hard sell for local communities. People in Switzerland share their experience to help others going through the same discussion where they live. From GDFWatch.

The UK Government will shortly publish an urgent new energy plan, in response to the accelerated need created by the invasion of Ukraine to wean the country off imported energy.  New nuclear will be at the heart of this plan, and of the subsequent public debate.  The same is likely in many other countries.  Given the global fears stoked by the attacks on Chernobyl and other Ukrainian radwaste facilities, we can expect that the safe management and geological disposal of long-lived radwastes will become a more prominent and integral feature of any public debate about investing in new nuclear power-generating capacity – in a way that it has not really been before.

Whether nuclear should have a role to play in future energy generation, energy security, and climate change mitigation, is about to become a more lively public debate.  However, as events in Ukraine have shown, that debate is a completely separate discussion on how we safely remove existing wastes (and any from disarmed nuclear weapons) from the surface, so that a future Putin or other human failure does not threaten us or our environment.