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Why does the world store nuclear waste and simply do not launch it into the sun or deep space? – Jason, 16, Mackay, Queensland.
Hi Jason Thanks for the question. I search space junk, so I also spent some time thinking about what we launched into space and where it ends.
It would be good to send dangerous nuclear waste away from Earth, where it would do no harm. However, it is not as simple as it sounds.
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What is nuclear waste?
Nuclear waste is what is left over after nuclear fuel is used in a reactor. Many countries around the world use nuclear reactors to produce electricity for homes and industries.
The energy is made by fission, which is when an atom breaks. The problem is that some of the wastes – called high level wastes – are very radioactive. It releases particles that can make people, animals and plants sick. It also lasts for thousands of years.
High-level waste accounts for only 3% of all nuclear waste produced. Much of it is recycled, which reduces its radioactivity. That leaves the problem of what to do with the rest.
At the moment, high level waste is stored on Earth. It is usually insulated in water, glass or concrete to prevent particles from escaping. Containers are buried, but they have to be somewhere where earthquakes do not happen and terrorists can not dig them up.
We would not have to worry about it if we could send the garbage to the Sun, where it would disintegrate. But there are some reasons why we do not do this.
It's not as easy as you might think
One is that this is very, very expensive. When the Parker Solar Probe was sent to measure the Sun this year, it cost $ 1.5 billion just for a spacecraft the size of a small car to reach so far.
It seems simple to fire an object toward something as big as the Sun – which is 1.3 million times the size of Earth. But it's actually very difficult. The Parker Solar Probe (a NASA robotic spacecraft on its way to investigating the Sun's outer crown) has to pass seven times on the planet Venus to slow down enough to approach the Sun.
The other reason is that rockets sometimes explode on the launch pad or in the atmosphere. This would release the garbage into the environment and make the problem even worse.
What about deep space?
You also asked about deep space and that is a good question. Why do not we just send nuclear waste away from the Sun into the outer solar system?
Well, there is a risk that the waste storage spacecraft might break out of the course and collide with a planet, the moon, or the asteroid. Some places may have life that we have not yet discovered, like Mars and Europe (which is one of Jupiter's moons).
Even if rubbish is safely sealed in a container, there is a risk that it may end up polluting other planets. It can pose a danger to us or other forms of life. Life forms may be just microbes, but we still have the ethical responsibility not to harm them.
Of course, there are already nuclear-powered spaceships out there. They use an RTG (a type of generator called Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator). In the movie The MartianAstronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) digs out a RTG to keep him warm in freezing temperatures.
In the end, the problem is that no one on Earth wants nuclear waste stored near them, and it is not safe or economical to throw them into space.
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