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In the face of net zero targets and increasing energy security concerns, nuclear power is undergoing a revival. There are more than 50 reactors presently under construction worldwide, close to half of them in China and India. But as the new plants go up there is limited discussion of the huge costs and complexity of dismantling old plants and dealing with waste, which can remain radioactive for up to 300,000 years. A quarter million metric tonnes of spent fuel rods are believed to be spread across 14 countries worldwide, mostly collected in cooling pools at closed-down nuclear plants.
Some nuclear waste can be recycled. In France, a specialist plant can reprocess uranium, plutonium, and fission chemicals into new fuel. But critics point to the fact that the fuel can only be reused once, and the process itself creates yet more radioactive waste.
Other nations grappling with the waste problem include South Korea. In July, its government announced it was investing more than $1bn in R&D, aimed at having a high-level waste treatment facility established by 2060. Countries have even toyed with injecting waste into space, or burying it deep under the seabed. But only one long-term solution is broadly considered safe and feasible - burying radioactive materials several hundred metres below ground in stable formations of clay, rock salt, and granite that have not moved for millions of years.
But no one has yet managed to do it. The US pumped $15bn into a project in Nevada, but it was eventually abandoned due to sustained public opposition. Similar opposition has dogged attempts in other countries. However, Finland has made the fastest progress with its facility in Olkiluoto Island. After decades of negotiation with the local community it will bury its radioactive waste there 1,400ft below the granite bedrock. The burial site is expected to begin operation in 2023.
France has identified its own deep burial site 300km east of Paris. So far, it has cost $2.5bn and involved 25 years of research. But thanks to public opposition, it is possible that, just like in Nevada, this deep burial project may never see the light of day.