This House Would Store Nuclear Waste Underground


Underground nuclear waste storage is a controversial topic that accompanies the question of whether nuclear energy is, overall, a good idea. The question of where and how to store the radioactive waste that follows nuclear energy production has been at the heart of concerns with the energy source. In the United States, Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas, was the most prominent underground facility ever proposed, where virtually all of the nation's spent nuclear fuel rods would have been permanently buried over 300 meters beneath the ground. Citing concerns regarding the possibility of leakage over thousands of years, and local discomfort over the plan, the 20-year multi-billion dollar project was halted by the Obama administration in 2009. But, is this an overarching rebuke of underground nuclear waste disposal? This remains an open question, as the world seeks to deal with the radioactive waste it is currently storing in above-ground facilities, which are generally considered less safe than deep underground storage facilities.


In this debate, proposition should try to create a mechanism that seeks to store nuclear waste in the same way as the Yucca Mountain facility near Las Vegas. It is also important to note that this motion is fairly limited in its scope and likely will struggle to make it all the way down the table in a British Parliamentary debate. This is indicated by the relative lack of proposition and opposition arguments.

Storing nuclear waste underground is necessary - there are no better option available

Even states without nuclear waste programs tend to generate radioactive waste. For example, research and medicine both use nuclear material and nuclear technology. Technologies such as Medical imaging equipment are dependent and the use of radioactive elements. This means that all states produce levels of nuclear waste that need to be dealt with.

Moreover, many non-nuclear states are accelerating their programmes of research and investment into nuclear technologies. With the exception of Germany, there is an increasing consensus among developed nations that nuclear power is the only viable method of meeting rising domestic demand for energy in the absence of reliable and efficient renewable forms of power generation.

The alternatives to putting nuclear waste in underground storage tend to be based around the reuse of nuclear waste in nuclear power stations. Whilst this is viable in some areas, in countries which lack the technology to be able to do this and in countries which don’t need to rely on nuclear power, this option becomes irrelevant. Further, even this process results in the creation of some nuclear waste, so in countries with the technology to implement such a solution, the disposal of the remaining nuclear waste is still an issue.

As such, underground nuclear storage is a necessary method that should be used to dispose of nuclear waste. 1

1. “The EU’s deep underground storage plan.” 03/11/2010. World Nuclear News.


Underground nuclear storage is not the only way to store nuclear material. Economically speaking, it is more expensive, but likely much safer to store nuclear waste above ground in facilities that can be easily monitored and dealt with. Unlike in underground storage facilities, should something go wrong above ground, it can be responded to quickly and efficiently and it is likely that problems will be detected earlier as well.

Further, widely implementing underground nuclear storage would also encourage states to be more cavalier with their nuclear energy policies. Specifically, whilst nuclear energy generation may result in zero carbon emissions, the mining and milling of uranium that initially starts the process is environmentally damaging.1

  1. ISN Security Watch. “Europe’s Nuclear Waste Storage Problems.” 01/06/2010
Underground nuclear storage is safer than any available alternative

Underground nuclear waste storage means that nuclear waste is stored at least 300m underground.

The harm of a leak 300m underground is significantly limited, if the area has been chosen correctly then there should be no water sources nearby to contaminate. If this is the case, then a leak’s harm would be limited to the layers of sediment nearby which would be unaffected by radiation. By comparison a leak outside might lead to animals nearby suffering from contamination. Further nuclear waste might reach water sources should there be a leak above ground, if it is raining heavily when the leak happens for example.

Further, the other options available, such as above ground storage present a potentially greater danger, should something go wrong. This is because it is much easier for nuclear waste to leak radiation into the air. This is problematic because even a hint of radiation may well cause people to panic owing to the damaging and heavily publicised consequences of previous nuclear safety crises. As such, underground storage is safer both directly and indirectly.1

As well as this, underground storage also prevents nuclear waste or nuclear radiation from reaching other states and as such, results in greater safety across borders.2

Further, storing all nuclear waste underground means that countries can concentrate their research and training efforts on responding to subterranean containment failures. Focus and specialisation of this type is much more likely to avert a serious release of nuclear material from an underground facility than the broad and general approach that will be fostered by diverse and distinct above-ground storage solutions.

  1. “Fukushima is a triumph for nuclear power.” The Register. 20/02/2010
  2. “EU Debates Permanent Storage For Nuclear Waste.” 04/11/2010 AboutMyPlanet.

Journalist Jeremy Shere describes the problems with most methods of nuclear storage:

"There have been a few other interesting ideas –such as burying nuclear waste beneath the ocean floor. Scientists have also thought about putting waste in really deep holes, burying it in polar ice sheets, and stashing it beneath uninhabited islands. [...] But there are problems with each of these ideas. For example, it would be difficult to monitor nuclear waste under the ocean floor. Waste buried deep in the earth, meanwhile, might contaminate ground water. And as ice sheets continue to melt, it’s hard to say how long nuclear waste would remain buried, or where it would end up if it floated away. Plans to store waste produced in the United States in Yucca Mountain, in Utah, have been put on hold. So for now almost all nuclear waste is kept above ground in special containers at a few hundred different sites around the country.”1

The point with underground nuclear storage is that geological conditions are often very different between states and regions; this would often mean that in some states underground nuclear storage would be completely inappropriate because it could leak due to geological changes. Further, underground nuclear storage as mentioned in the first opposition counter-argument, actively encourages a state to become reliant on nuclear power.

  1. Shere, Jeremy. “What Is The Best Way To Dispose Of Nuclear Waste?” Moment of Science. 23/03/2010
Underground nuclear storage is excessively expensive

Underground nuclear storage is expensive. This is because the deep geological repositories needed to deal with such waste are difficult to construct. This is because said repositories need to be 300m underground and also need failsafe systems so that they can be sealed off should there be a leak. For smaller countries, implementing this idea is almost completely impossible.

Further, the maintenance of the facilities also requires a lot of long term investment as the structural integrity of the facilities must consistently be monitored and maintained so that if there is a leak, the relevant authorities can be informed quickly and efficiently.

This is seen with the Yucca mountain waste repository site which has cost billions of dollars since the 1990s and was eventually halted due to public fears about nuclear safety.1

  1. ISN Security Watch. “Europe’s Nuclear Waste Storage Problems.” 01/06/2010

The economic costs of underground storage are high. However, given that nuclear power is necessary to avoid what would likely be a very significant amount of economic harm, specifically from global warming. For example, it has been projected that not doing anything to address climate change would result in an overall increase in temperate of 5 degrees Celsius which would lead to economic costs in the order of $74 trillion. This means that the need for nuclear waste storage is inevitable.1

As such, whilst underground storage does cost more than alternate options, it is as mentioned within the proposition case the safest and most reliable method of nuclear waste storage. As such, proposition is willing to take the harm of extra cost in order to prevent harm to people’s health and well being.

  1. Ackerman, Frank. Stanton, Elizabeth. “Climate Change –the Costs of Inaction.” Friend of the Earth. 11/10/2006
Nuclear waste can be put to beneficial uses

France is the largest nuclear energy producer in the world. It generates 80% of its electricity from nuclear power. 1 It is very important to note, therefore, that it does not rely on underground nuclear waste storage. Instead, it relies on above ground, on-site storage. This kind of storage combined with heavy reprocessing and recycling of nuclear waste, makes underground storage unnecessary. 2

As such it seems logical that in most western liberal democracies that are able to reach the same level of technological progress as France, it makes more sense to store nuclear waste above ground. Above ground, checks and balances can be put into place that allow the maintenance of these nuclear storage facilities to be monitored more closely. Furthermore, reprocessing and recycling leads to less wasted Uranium overall. This is important as Uranium, whilst being plentiful in the earth, is often difficult to mine and mill. As such, savings here often significantly benefit things such as the environment and lower the economic cost of the entire operation.

  1. Palfreman, Jon. “Why the French Like Nuclear Energy.” PBS.
  2. BBC News, ‘France nuclear power funding gets 1bn euro boost’, 27 June 2011,

Side proposition supports the reuse of nuclear waste; however, it also believes that the remaining nuclear waste left by the process should be stored underground.

This is because, the nuclear waste created from such a recycling process ends up being more concentrated and dangerous radioactively than normal nuclear waste. As such, storage above ground is incredibly dangerous if there is a leak. By comparison, storing the waste underground leaves 300m of sediment between the waste and the air. As such, the chances of the waste reaching a water source or causing panic are reduced as detailed in the proposition substantive. Further, even if there is a leak, the facilities can often be sealed off to prevent this from happening.1

  1. “Nuclear Waste Faces uncertain future in Europe.” The Nuclear N Former. 2/11/2010
Nuclear waste can be used in other forms of power generation

There are new kinds of nuclear reactor such as ‘Integral Fast Reactors’, which can be powered by the waste from normal nuclear reactors (or from uranium the same as any other nuclear reactor). This means that the waste from other reactors or dismantled nuclear weapons could be used to power these new reactors. The Integral Fast Reactor extends the ability to produce energy roughly by a factor of 100. This would therefore be  a very long term energy source.1

The waste at the end of the process is not nearly as much of a problem, as it is from current reactors. Because the IFR recycles the waste hundreds of times there is very much less waste remaining and what there is has a much shorter half-life, only tens of years rather than thousands. This makes storage for the remainder much more feasible, as there would be much less space required.2

  1. Till, Charles, ‘Nuclear Reaction Why DO Americans Fear Nuclear Power’, PBS
  2. Monbiot, George, ‘We need to talk about Sellafield, and a nuclear solution that ticks all our boxes’,, 5 December 2011,

Integral Fast Reactors are not a solution for the short term. There are currently no Integral Fast Reactors in commercial operation and the research reactor that was to be constructed by the United States was canceled in 1994. Any attempt to use IFRs to recycle all of the world’s nuclear waste would be very expensive and would not be an immediate solution – the waste would need to be stored somewhere while it waits to be used by the new reactors.



Ackerman, Frank. Stanton, Elizabeth. “Climate Change –the Costs of Inaction.” Friend of the Earth. 11/10/2006

BBC News, ‘France nuclear power funding gets 1bn euro boost’, 27 June 2011,

“Europe eyes underground nuclear waste repositories.” Infowars Ireland. 20/02/2010

“EU Debates Permanent Storage For Nuclear Waste.” 04/11/2010 AboutMyPlanet.

ISN Security Watch. “Europe’s Nuclear Waste Storage Problems.” 01/06/2010

Monbiot, George, ‘We need to talk about Sellafield, and a nuclear solution that ticks all our boxes’,, 5 December 2011,

“Nuclear Waste Faces uncertain future in Europe.” The Nuclear N Former. 2/11/2010

Palfreman, Jon. “Why the French Like Nuclear Energy.” PBS.

 Shere, Jeremy. “What Is The Best Way To Dispose Of Nuclear Waste?” Moment of Science. 23/03/2010

 “The EU’s deep underground storage plan.” 03/11/2010. World Nuclear News.

Till, Charles, ‘Nuclear Reaction Why DO Americans Fear Nuclear Power’, PBS,