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Beyond the Design Mindset in Nuclear Generation

By Katrina Kelly and Jane Fiona Cumming

This week Japan issued a statement that many in the nuclear industry have been anticipating for some time. There is, in fact, a leak at Fukushima − and has been for the past two years. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency estimates that there are 300 tonnes of leaked waste. The nuclear industry must ask itself: how do we make sure that this does not happen at other sites?

The answer lies in developing more sustainable applications to the nuclear end-cycle and really embracing a “beyond the design mind-set”. Risk can be reduced by using the technology that accompanies the new generation of reactors. But we are failing to apply a methodological framework that would allow for full alertness to social and environmental factors.

Up to now, the main problem has been the cooling pools required to cool and store spent nuclear fuel rods − and this was the case at Fukushima. The earthquake caused the walls of the cooling pools to crack, resulting in ground-water contamination and hence further water contamination. Although water can be pumped out, the number of tanks needed on-site to hold that amount of water is simply not an option. The only possibility at the moment, to avoid another Fukushima, is to decommission reactors that are identified as high risk and to put more reliable and efficient nuclear reactors in their place.

From a technical standpoint, the new generation of reactors is already designed to remove a certain degree of risk within the nuclear cycle. The reactors are not only more efficient (providing more power with less waste) but many countries have discovered more innovative solutions to deal with the waste. Most commonly, geological disposal is an option, but several countries have also found ways of reducing the size and impact of the waste before disposing of it. Sweden and Finland are notably further ahead than many nations in their understanding of nuclear waste. The UK has made impressive advances in the development at Sellafield, while the Australians have gone quite far withSynroc. If so many advances have been made, why is nuclear energy still receiving so much negative attention?

Sustainable applications for the management of nuclear waste do not lie only in technical solutions, but also in knowledge and awareness. There is a lack of understanding of currently available technologies, and there is a lack of communication with those stakeholders who are most impacted by waste management decisions. The decision to build a geological disposal site often creates fears within communities that they may be more susceptible to contamination, when in fact this method of disposal often decreases the likelihood of exposure to radiation. Perhaps this fear is increased by a lack of communication by the nuclear industry which has struggled to find a unified voice after Fukushima. Japan previously said there is no need for concern and the UK is now pushing to declare a state of crisis to the public; so the problems in communication are not limited to the end-cycle, but affect overall discussion in the nuclear industry. Industry professionals must build strategies that capture and mitigate the diverse risks involved in the nuclear cycle.

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