The Future of Nuclear Waste

Aanya Bhola

Picture this: a barren wasteland, surrounded by spikes the size of buildings and rubble stained black to absorb the heat, turning the area into a scorching desert. It guards something too strong to be permanently destroyed, yet too dangerous to have out in the open. It will last for millennia. This concept sounds almost futuristic, but radioactive waste is both deadly and extremely real.

This type of long-term nuclear waste is a fairly recent issue, as radioactive waste only began to be produced in the early 1980s. It’s a byproduct of nuclear reactors and fuel processing plants and can be incredibly dangerous to be around, as evident by its many short and long-term impacts.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011—affecting a zone spanning 30 kilometers and causing over 154,000 residents to evacuate—is one recent example. In high doses, radiation can kill instantly; in lower, its effects include long-term radiation sickness, hair loss, infertility, intestine destruction, and reduction of white blood cells. WHO estimated a 70% higher risk of developing thyroid cancer for girls exposed to this radioactivity as infants, showing the potency of even this type of indirect radiation.

Despite this, nuclear waste can’t be permanently destroyed. It’s made up of a combination of many radioactive isotopes, all with specific properties. There’s no one by-the-book method to neutralize it. Sea, land, or atmosphere disposal is unacceptable due to the severe environmental risk. Space disposal was briefly considered, but never implemented due to the severe consequences launch failure or leakages would lead to. In short, there’s effectively no way to get rid of nuclear waste and its hazardous radioactivity for good right now.

Luckily, the radioactivity of nuclear waste weakens with time. All radionuclides in nuclear waste have a half-life—the time it takes for atoms to undergo radioactive decay. However, there’s a downside—nuclear waste can take up to a million years to be considered harmless. To put that in perspective, that’s about how long it’s been since the last ice age when mammoths and saber-toothed tigers roamed the earth. This type of longevity, especially for materials hazardous to this scale, is unprecedented.

Long-term nuclear waste disposal is one solution to this. Instead of destroying the radioactive material, this concept refers to the storage of waste in nuclear repositories located deep underground. The material is isolated through both engineered and natural barriers, and it’s completely self-sustaining, with no burden on future generations to maintain it.

It’s a fascinating concept, especially when you consider the idea that these depositories will likely outlast everything we know and believe to be true now. One thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand years in the future—they’ll be there.

An issue with this, however, is that maintaining records meant to last for millennia of where waste is dumped is next to impossible. We have no way of knowing whether the methods of communication we have will be alive in the far future. Languages die frequently, and even today, there are remnants of ancient dialects linguists aren’t able to comprehend. There’s no guarantee that we’d be able to pass on this knowledge to future generations. And even if we did, judging from our past escapades into the Arctics, the Amazon, Egyptian tombs, people love discovery. Our future generations won’t be deterred by just a few words of warning.

To prevent possible future intrusion of these sites, scientists proposed long-term nuclear waste warning messages. They consist of four stages: Rudimentary Information (Something man-made is here), Cautionary Information (it is dangerous), Basic Information (what, why, when, where, who, and how), and Complex Information (detailed records, maps, and diagrams.)

Hostile architecture and pictograms were decided upon, as they could universally convey the message of danger. A field of spikes above the area renders it uninhabitable, signifying “shunned land.” They’re painted black to absorb heat and turn the area into a scorching desert. Pictograms of human faces expressing horror and disgust have been implemented, as well as danger symbols from all over the world. Texts have also been proposed to be translated to every UN written language, escribed on sapphire disks with a lifespan of over a million years. “This is not a place of honor,” the disks say. “This place is a message in a bottle; It is our legacy and our tomb. What was here was repulsive and dangerous to us. This place is best left uninhabited.”

Perhaps one day, tens of thousands of years from now, nuclear waste will be a foreign concept. Perhaps scientists of the future will stumble across a field of spikes with odd symbols and hundreds of archaic languages that say some translated variation of “this place can kill.” “This place should be forgotten.” They might understand and leave the gravesite at rest. They might not, and dissect it as a monument, a memorial, some form of art. Either way, we can only hope that our message, a long-dead civilization’s pleas to let their sleeping god die, will be heeded.