Would it be feasible to dump nuclear waste into volcanoes?
August 16, 2006 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Would it be feasible to dump nuclear waste into volcanoes?

One proposed method to get rid of nuclear waste is to dump it into a subduction zone between two tectonic plates. But that would entail transporting the waste to massive depths and would probably be impractical for large quantities.

So why not just dump it into a volcano? Obviously it would be a volcano that is hopefully not going to erupt soon (and spray radioactive ash all over the place) but could an active volcano, accessible at the surface, with a suitably large magma pipe (so that their's a good chance the containers go into the mantle) be a potential way to get rid of nuclear waste? Even if the containers don't go all the way into the mantle they're still basically buried beneath a mountain?

I mean it worked for Frodo right? Or is it too risky?
posted by PenDevil to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Interesting idea, but I wonder about the logistical aspects:
-Transportation. Most volcanoes with active lava beds and pipes are in regions with few nuclear reactors. Countries with high reactor densities, like France, would have to ship (say to Hawaii).
-Delivery. I'm not sure an 18-wheeler with a heavy load could back up to the mouth of a volcano.
-Material burning. I'm not sure the surface temperature of a lava pool or bed is high enough to disintegrate the fuel on contact (the only way to avoid fallout). But maybe the containers could be forcibly thrust several hundred feet into the magna core?
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:06 PM on August 16, 2006

Best answer: A volcano is a place where the mantle is rising through the crust, so it might just be like trying to dump your sewerage into the ocean when the tide is coming in. I assume you're thinking that if the waste was dense enough, it could sink into the magma, but magma travels up and along through fissures and cracks in teh crust, it's not like a water well that goes downwards, so I suspect the volcano would just end up spreading the waste around the surface.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:06 PM on August 16, 2006

Yes, and very stupid. Volcanos eventually spew out what's in them, with some of the spew (the ashes) reaching the upper atmosphere and migrating over the entire world.
posted by orthogonality at 3:08 PM on August 16, 2006

"Even if the containers don't go all the way into the mantle they're still basically buried beneath a mountain?"

This can be done without the wildcard of a volcano, in a geologically stable area of our choosing that is unlikely to change over vast spans of time. So the hedge bet would seem to be to remove the volcano and do it manually.

posted by -harlequin- at 3:10 PM on August 16, 2006

I think odinsdream is right. A subduction zone is a sinking portion of the lithosphere. Volcanos are formed by magma being pushed up to the surface.

So if the volcano doesn't erupt, in a few hundred years you have a big radioactive mountain. Not so good.

If it does erupt, you have an extremely powerful radiological bomb, basically the worst case scenario.

You'd be better off just burying the waste somewhere no geologic activity was taking place.
posted by justkevin at 3:16 PM on August 16, 2006

Best answer: IA(almost)AGeologist, and this wouldn't work. Firstly, the mantle isn't a whole ocean of molten rock. For practical purposes, it's solid. In the business we call it a plastically flowing solid. So if you drop something into the mantle, it'll sit there and get hot.

Also, with volcano, the reason why it is not erupting is because there is a plug of cold, dense rock between the magma and the air. When you remove that, you get an eruption.

Anyhows, you want to get rid of nuclear waste? Come to Australia. Not only do we have thousands upon thousands of kilometres worth of empty land, but the soil in much of central Australia is already so naturally radioactive that you would reduce the radioactivity by installing a nuclear waste storage facility. Of course, our government doesn't see it that way.

And the subduction zone thing is ridiculous. Sure, it would work, but it would work over a few hundred thousand years, at least. In the meantime it'll just be sitting there, so you may as well let it sit somewhere that doesn't involve that much hassle.
posted by twirlypen at 3:53 PM on August 16, 2006


What's needed is a linear-induction launcher running up the side of a non-volcanic mountain. Nuclear waste would be sealed into cans made of ferrous metal, and shot into space, timed such that they'd eventually fall into the Sun's gravity well, where they'd disappear like a dime in the ocean.
posted by Rash at 4:49 PM on August 16, 2006

Similar scenarios to what rash proposes were in fact considered in the 1970s, including orbit (never got that one), into the sun & trans-solar system. The problem is that to make it at all cost-effective, you'd have to reduce the volume by concentrating the radwaste to a very high degree - enter problems of personnel dosage & radiation field screwing with onboard electronics (at least back then).

Nowadays the concept would never get past a NEPA impact study review (at least with the public) -- NASA can hardly get plutonium 238 heat-source power generators thru public comment (due to concerns about mishaps on launch that might result in spread of radioactivity).
posted by Pressed Rat at 5:48 PM on August 16, 2006

Why not store nuclear waste (at least temporarily) in a place that's already dangerously radioactive, such as Chernobyl or the Bikini Atoll.

Of course, shooting it into space is the perfect solution, like Rash said. If a space elevator ever gets built (I'm constantly hearing that we're pretty close, technologically speaking, to be capable of building one), it's actually practical to simply let it loose at the top at point when it will eventually find its way to the sun.

Anyhow, I think nuclear waste isn't quite the problem people make it out to be. Wikipedia has a nice article on the subject.
posted by Zero Gravitas at 6:46 PM on August 16, 2006

It was to have dwarfed the Yucca mountain proposal in that it could handle everybody's waste.

Put all our nuclear waste in one place. Hmmm...

Yeah; Great Idea.
posted by baylink at 1:54 PM on August 17, 2006

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