The underlying objective of all spent fuel management practices is the protection of the environment and people for generations to come. Nuclear generation operators, unlike most fossil fuel generation operators, are able to consolidate waste and safely sequester it away from the environment. In comparison, fossil fuel generation disperses wastes such as coal ash in the air and land where hazardous elements remain forever.

Deep geologic disposal concepts have made significant progress in the past ten years, particularly in the technical areas concerning the understanding of natural and engineered safety-barrier systems. A very high level of consensus exists amongst international regulators and spent fuel management experts endorsing the long-term safety of deep geologic disposal.

The Oklo fossil reactor site (1997)
The Oklo fossil reactor site (1997)
Image credit: Andreas Mittler

In fact, nature has already proven that geological isolation is possible. Almost 2 billion years ago, at Oklo in West Africa, several spontaneous nuclear reactors operated within a naturally occurring vein of uranium ore. These natural nuclear reactions continued for about 500,000 years and then gradually ceased. All the same high-level wastes that are produced in a reactor were produced naturally at the site, including 1.5 tonnes of plutonium and 5 tonnes of fission products. Despite the lack of any barriers or containment features, all of the waste products remained at the site and eventually decayed into non-radioactive elements.

One ton of natural uranium can produce more than 40 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. This is equivalent to burning 16,000 tons of coal or 80,000 barrels of oil.