The science of nuclear energy
The science of nuclear energy

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The science of nuclear energy

2.3 Waste produced by nuclear power

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Calder Hall was what's called a Magnox reactor. They used natural uranium metal fuel clad in a magnesium alloy canister. When the magnesium alloy is stripped from the fuel rods, it's highly radioactive. In the UK, the spent rods are reprocessed to salvage plutonium, but this still produces waste. And further waste is produced when the reactors are eventually dismantled.
A single Magnox reactor in decommissioning will produce about 20,000 tonnes of radioactive waste. That has to be consigned, segregated, packaged, and stored. Some of that radioactive waste has to be stored for tens of years, some for hundreds of years, and some for thousands of years.
So the birth of nuclear power saw the beginnings of the problem of nuclear waste. At the time, low level waste, such as clothing, was put in shallow pits and covered, but high level, highly radioactive waste was stored on site, awaiting a long term solution.
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The reactor at Calder Hall, which was on what is now the Sellafield site in Cumbria, was the first operating nuclear power station in the world.

It connected to the grid in 1956 and was a Magnox type reactor. Initially its main purpose was the production of plutonium from uranium-238, but the secondary process of electricity production soon took over and became the primary function of the site. Calder Hall was closed in March 2003 and decommissioning began.

Older reactors produced a great deal of radioactive waste, 20 000 tonnes were produced from Calder Hall.

The video states that ‘Some of that radioactive waste has to be stored for tens of years, some for hundreds of years and some for thousands of years.’ These timescales are obviously problematic! To understand why such forward thinking is involved we need to look again at the nature of radioactivity and the concept of half-life. You’ll do this in the next section.


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