Engineering Question #3087

Anonymous, a 31 year old male from the Internet asks on December 5, 2005,

What would happen if nuclear waste was dumped into a lava flow or a volcano.

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The answer

Harry Murphy, Retired Nuclear Physicist, New Mexico answered on April 6, 2006

There are two kinds of nuclear waste: (1) Low-level waste, such as glassware, gloves, tissues, and other trash which may have become contaminated in a laboratory or a factory processing radioactive materials, and (2) High-level waste, such as comes from fuel rod processing. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico was designed to store low-level waste. I know of no similar facility for high-level waste, although tunnels in Yucca Mountain in Nevada have been suggested for such storage. As to dumping nuclear waste in a lava flow, the important thing to remember is the radioactivity is NOT destroyed; the radioactivity will continue and wind up somewhere. For dumping low-level waste in a lava flow, I would expect the trash to burst into flame, dispersing much of the radioactivity in the smoke. The glassware and metal would probably melt and coat the lava with a radioactive glaze which would be carried to wherever the lava flows and cools. Dumping high-level waste in a lava flow would also disperse volatile components of the waste into the atmosphere, while the rest of the waste melts and forms a very radioactive glaze on the lava. I would expect little or no mixing of the waste into the lava, itself. Dumping hot waste in a lava flow will almost certainly result in radioactive materials being released into the environment where it would be very difficult to contain it. Until we find a better way, entombment of the waste in underground vaults or tunnels, such as at WIPP, is probably our only option. Unfortunately, because of the long half-lifes of some radionuclides, we must be prepared to secure such vaults for centuries.

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