The Court of Auditors in Spain has warned that there are not enough funds to defray the cost for the dismantling of nuclear power plants in Spain, and that the agreement between the Government and the three large electricity companies, Naturgy, Endesa and Iberdrola on a progressive closure will get to smooth the hole that will occur with the dismantling. But what do we do with them?
Throwing all our nuclear waste into a volcano seems like a good and organized solution to get rid of the more or less 26,000 tons of uranium fuel rods that are stored worldwide. But there is an indispensable condition that a volcano should meet so that we could leave all the waste there, explains Charlotte Rowe, a volcanic geophysics at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. And this condition is heat. Lava should not only melt fuel rods but also neutralize uranium radioactivity. “Unfortunately,” Rowe says, “the volcanoes are not hot enough.”
The hot lava from a volcano can reach 1,316 ° C. In the first place, it is not a sufficient temperature to melt the zirconium (melting point of 1855 ºC) where the fuel is stored, not to mention the fuel itself: the melting point of uranium oxide, the one used in most of nuclear plants, it is 2,865 ºC. Temperatures with several tens of thousands of degrees more are needed to undo the uranium’s atomic nucleus and make its radioactivity zero, says Rowe. What is needed is a thermonuclear reaction, like that of an atomic bomb, which is not a great idea to get rid of nuclear waste.
Melting points aside, a volcano probably wouldn’t even swallow the material. Liquid lava in a volcano tends to emerge, so that the bars would not sink much, Rowe says. Instead, the residues would remain in the highest part of the solidified lava of the volcano, at least until the pressure of the emerging magma was so potent that the dome broke and the volcano erupted. And that would be the real problem.
A normal lava stream is already quite dangerous, but lava coming out of a volcano that has been used to store radioactive waste would be extremely radioactive. In the end it would solidify, and the hills of the mountain would become a nuclear wasteland for decades. And the danger would go even further. “All volcanoes do is project matter into the sky,” says Rowe. “In a big eruption, ash and gas can rise up to 10 km and then go around the globe several times. We would all have a really serious problem.”
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