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Nuclear Waste and the Polycrisis

February 20, 2024

Origin and Nature of the Nuclear Legacy

Nuclear technology [1] has been in use internationally in a multitude of forms (e.g., for civil power generation, nuclear weapons, naval population, and medical applications) for approximately 80 years, and has been a long-term component of the global energy system (albeit with a relatively small and falling total contribution).  Although it is a relatively young innovation compared to some key human technologies (such as electricity and the internal combustion engine) and very young compared to others (such as wheels and agriculture), it has in those eight decades already had a big impact on human societies, including the generation of a legacy which has the potential to persist over timescales greatly exceeding the duration of complex human societies to date.  This is primarily in the form of radioactive wastes, which are defined as materials arising from nuclear technologies and processes which have no further use, and comprise a complex mix of different materials containing a wide range of radioactivity types and concentrations. The ionising radiation these wastes emit and the radionuclides (and other non-radiological toxins) they contain require suitable management to control the biohazards they present.

Civil nuclear power generation has been one of the primary contributors to radioactive waste generation, and these wastes have accumulated at hundreds of sites (where they were generated, and/or in consolidated form at centralised facilities) in more than 30 nations worldwide.  Much of the early management approaches in the burgeoning phases of the nuclear industry were quite ah-hoc, and the risks of radionuclides with some very long half-lives [2] being stored in aging and deteriorating infrastructure have become increasingly recognised.  The unique risk profile of nuclear wastes has therefore in recent decades compelled governments and other authorities to seek a remedial strategy which is commensurate with the challenge whilst also being effective, passively safe, robust from a scientific and engineering perspective, and economically, socially and politically acceptable.  Not all nuclear nations have yet started to develop these long-term plans in detail but in those nations that have, the approach most commonly settled upon [3] as a final solution for their waste legacies is geological disposal.

This describes the permanent emplacement of containerised waste materials [4] within engineered structures in stable rock masses at depths of approximately ≥ 500 m, so that the radioactivity is isolated by these barriers from the surface environment and biosphere.  These facilities may comprise mined repositories or deep boreholes (with the former currently being the generally preferred solution) and in either case they are intended to contain, slow and attenuate the migration of radioactivity over prolonged timescales.  In the countries where these facilities will be implemented, they will be huge national projects requiring continuous investments of resources, expertise, and political will over decades (or even a century or more) to build, operate, monitor and close.  These projects represent quite unique endeavours in a modern world in which governmental foresight and planning rarely extends beyond the next few years.  Indeed, as I have previously pointed out, geological disposal facilities will be in all likelihood the closest we have to the ‘cathedral thinking’ that historical societies demonstrated in building legacies which endured through time.

Influence of the Polycrisis

Several countries have made material progress towards achieving geological disposal (notably Finland, where first disposals of spent fuel into the Onkalo repository are planned to occur during 2024-25 [[1]]).  However, for most nations with ambitions to deal with their nuclear legacies this way, the lead in times will be long and wastes are being ‘passivated’ and put into interim long term storage [5] pending disposal facilities becoming available.   In the context of the 2020s and beyond, we must therefore consider these unique projects in light of long term developing global risks and trends.

A range of natural and anthropogenic phenomena are emerging and strengthening which will have a bearing on the practicality of geographically dispersed projects of the scale, duration and complexity of geological disposal.  This general predicament is increasingly labelled as the polycrisis, and is characterised as the multifaceted, interacting, synchronising and worsening plethora of threats and challenges that humanity faces at global scale.  The polycrisis will interact with human systems in complex and multifaceted ways, and geological disposal provides a unique case study of how these interactions could manifest; the following paragraphs explore some of the different potential impacts:

(i) The first realm of polycrisis impacts is logistics and supply chains. Geological disposal facilities will be large, complex and will make use of extensive quantities of specialist equipment, technology and materials, which by necessity will be sourced via global supply chains.  A key aspect will be provision of material for the subsurface engineered barriers, which are fundamental to providing effective long-term containment.  These will make extensive use of specialist clay minerals (notably bentonite [1]) which are available in economic deposits in only a few locations globally, therefore millions of tonnes of this material will need to be shipped long distance to under-construction repositories [[2]].

Multiple phenomena associated with the polycrisis have the potential to impact transport and logistical systems (particularly the multiple global chokepoints [[3]]) including damage to infrastructure and disruption of key routes from the effects of climate change, pandemics, and geopolitical strife and conflicts.  Indeed, the vulnerability of key global trade routes and chokepoints (specifically, the Suez and Panama Canals) has very recently been highlighted; the confluence of several events and trends have conspired to create simultaneous disruptions which have already impacted global trade.  Extrapolation of this and equivalent polycrisis-related phenomena could seriously challenge the material needs of potentially multiple geological disposal facilities being constructed simultaneously in different locations globally.

(ii) The construction and operation of geological disposal facilities will represent an enormous financial commitment in each nation where they are pursued, and these costs will also continue over timescales far in excess of broadly equivalent major infrastructure projects. Ensuring that these projects are ‘seen through’ to a final closure stage [6] [[4]] will therefore be reliant not only on individual’s nations fiscal situations, but also on the global financial system remaining solvent and stable over extended timeframes.  The polycrisis may present threats to this vital financial foundation in several different forms.

Firstly, climate change has and will continue to drive increased incidence of extreme weather, which due to the close coupling of virtually all parts of the human system with the climate, will cause impacts including infrastructure damage and population displacements.  A second order effect of this is cumulative costs (e.g., of abandoning land and rebuilding damaged infrastructure); insurance is one of the main buffers against these costs, but whole regions have increasingly become effectively uninsurable due to the frequency of climate damages [[5]] [[6]], and increasing prevalence of climate change will continue this trend.  Secondly, depletion and scarcities of fundamental resources and energy may cascade through multiple aspects of society, which will likely continue to drive inflationary tendencies and debt growth as societies increasingly attempt to ‘pull resources forward’ in time [[7]].  The polycrisis will therefore likely act as on ongoing drag on the global economic condition, and in this situation of dwindling resources, the essentials of maintaining societal function and stability (e.g., food provision, law and order, etc.) may be given priority over what could potentially become increasingly regarded as a ‘gold-plated’ luxury primarily for the benefit of future generations.

(iii) Geological disposal projects will require that a high degree of engagement and trust is established between the communities hosting disposal facilities, general populations, and the nations in question’s institutions (including local and national government, regulators and civil service), media, and the scientific authorities making the case for waste disposals being safe. This will need to be maintained over long time periods (the duration of the disposals and closure) to ensure ongoing consent and financial (and other) support remains in place [1].  The polycrisis could create progressively greater challenges to this as a result of changing trends in the way that information is being disseminated and used at societal and global scale, which is becoming a fundamental aspect (both cause and effect) of the polycrisis.

Communications and information management (along with other key aspects of society such as materials and energy) have been marked by numerous inflection points in terms of growth and change; inventions such as writing, the printing press, and most recently computing have driven profound changes.  This has continued into recent timeframes with exponential changes in the volume, nature, accessibility and application of information due to the internet, social media and increasingly, artificial intelligence.  In this recent context, misinformation and ‘fake news’ have experienced rapidly growing prevalence and reach, and have increasingly impacted trust in and the effectiveness of politics and institutions, challenged the authority of truthful information, and the cohesion of groups and societies [[8], [9]].  This could feasibly challenge the future viability of many aspects of societies but large, centralised ‘science’ projects such as geological disposal could in particular face ‘de-legitimatisation’ and faltering support which could ultimately threaten their delivery and completion.

In terms of the mechanisms by which the polycrisis could impact the implementation of geological disposal, the above points are far from exhaustive, but are a representative cross-section of the types of challenges that societies may face in applying large and expensive engineering solutions to problems (and perhaps in applying complexity as a problem-solving strategy in a more general sense) as the polycrisis deepens in future.  These sorts of challenges could therefore also feasibly apply to other future ‘big science’ responses to major challenges (e.g., geoengineering to address climate change).  However, it is the impacts that can’t be readily foreseen that may present greater challenges; the complex systems dynamics underlying the polycrisis are inherently unpredictable and counter-intuitive, and may see impacts ‘coming out of left field’ in ways that societies can’t and won’t expect and predict (as per the Tale of Two Canals example cited above).

Influence on the Polycrisis

Given that the polycrisis has the potential to impact the implementation of geological disposal in myriad ways, it is not a huge leap of logic to surmise that failures to implement these plans could themselves potentially contribute to the worsening of the polycrisis.  Enhancing feedback mechanisms of this sort will likely be key features and drivers of the polycrisis, and the following paragraphs explore examples of how these interactions and feedbacks may feasibly operate in the context of geological disposal:

(iv) The first and most direct risk from long-term failure to implement geological disposal relates to radioactive wastes remaining in surface storage in multiple locations globally. As global economic conditions likely become more challenging in coming years and decades (as described in ii above) a very worst case scenario would be the release and migration of concentrated stocks of radioactivity into the environment [7]. The impacts of such events would manifest in different ways at different scales, all of which could feed into the general polycrisis predicament through effects such as contamination of land and water resources, forcing of evacuations and migrations, and the sowing of panic and disruption.

At the large scales at which Earth Systems operate, radionuclides are described in the ‘planetary boundaries’ framework as comprising environmental ‘novel entities’ [8], with the potential to generate Earth System effects [[10]].  However, the mechanisms of this are currently poorly understood, and even large-scale migrations of radioactivity on the environment (as occurred due to nuclear weapons testing in the 1950-60s and from events such as the 1986 Chernobyl accident) do not appear to have generated broad-spectrum Earth System impacts in an equivalent way to the mass burning of fossil fuels (i.e., which has perturbed the global carbon cycle) and agriculture (i.e., which has perturbed the nitrogen/phosphorus cycles).  However, at smaller scales (i.e., regional, national or local) the impacts of such releases may be more acute and apparent, with potential for radioactivity to accumulate in environmental media (e.g., soils at local scale) and generate non-trivial risks.  Past radiological releases (as occurred at Chernobyl) have led to areas undergoing abandonment or evacuation, and this could therefore be a feasible outcome of the release of radioactivity from stored wastes.

(v) A potential secondary consequence of a future failure to effectively manage the radioactive waste legacy in different nations around the world may be in the form of changes in societal perceptions of risk, and trust in the ability of national institutions and authorities to manage such risks. ‘Radiophobia’ (fear of radiation and radioactive substances) is a phenomenon which co-developed with the appearance and spread of nuclear technologies, and a future scenario in which radioactive materials enter the environment without there being a remedial solution (i.e., geological disposal having not been implemented), could contribute to socio-political shifts.

Specifically, rising risks to people and the environment from a historical waste legacy which governments were unable or unwilling to decisively manage could generate an ongoing reduction in collective trust in institutions and belief in their ability to manage challenges arising from the polycrisis (even if lack of trust was a contributory factor in geological disposal not occurring in the first instance, as described in iii).  Although risks from radioactive release would likely be relatively small compared to other aspects of the polycrisis (e.g., climate change) the particular nature of radiophobia could mean that a failure to achieve geological disposal could form a significant aspect of a wider, self-reinforcing trend of growing disengagement with politics and civic society, and reducing effectiveness of governance and ability to manage escalating risks and disruption.

Wider Context and Conclusion

Nuclear technology has been a presence in technical civilisation for a number of decades, and has in that time been influential in a way few other technologies have.  Its most significant consequence is likely the legacy of radioactive wastes it has generated, which has accumulated in a variety of storage locations distributed through nations around the world.  Geological disposal has moved from the drawing board to reality (in some countries at least) as a means to remedy this problem, but implementing these plans will likely comprise some of the biggest, most complex and long-lived individual engineering projects civilisation has ever attempted.  To add to this challenge, geological disposal will likely be underway in parallel to global civilisation facing an unprecedented litany of challenges that have the potential to escalate into a collective predicament labelled as the polycrisis.

The polycrisis has the potential to challenge the implementation of geological disposal through a wide range of mechanisms, but it is the inherently unpredictable threats which may present the biggest challenges to achieving it.  If the various aspects of the polycrisis were to slow, challenge or prevent geological disposal being achieved, the unmitigated legacy could itself feasibly feed into the polycrisis via actual and/or perceived risks.  This complex relationship between the radioactive waste legacy and the wider context of the human predicament indicates that nuclear technology (more so than many others) may represent a ‘technology trap’ [9] in that historical commitments to its development have locked current and future generations into addressing the complex risks and externalities it has generated.  However, whether or not the pursuit of nuclear technology has been on balance a net benefit for humanity, the waste legacy it has generated persists and grows year on year, and we must therefore work to reduce risks to future generations, who might have much less resilience and adaptive capability.

Where the inherently unknowable future nature and threat of the polycrisis is concerned, the precautionary principle of minimising risks wherever possible should win out.  By that measure, geological disposal should be seen as an investment (or even an opportunity) in as much as it allows societies to gain control a discrete risk whilst that is still possible (i.e., before the effects of climate change, financial instability and misinformation really start to degrade global capabilities).  Therefore, any solutions we have within our collective gift that will contribute to getting risks under control now (particularly relatively limited and well bounded ones such as nuclear waste) before the polycrisis starts to really gain traction (for which the analogy ‘fixing the roof whilst the sun shines’ seems apt) should be urgently seized upon with everything we can collectively muster as a civilisation.

[1] Specifically, nuclear fission technologies; systems based on fusion processes are still largely experimental.

[2] The longest-lived anthropogenic radionuclides will remain hazardous on the order of >100,000 years.

[3] After eliminating low-credibility options such as launching waste into space or dropping it into volcanoes.

[4] This primarily refers to higher hazard wastes which contain higher concentrations of radionuclides in more volatile forms; lower hazard wastes will primarily be managed via alternative, cheaper approaches such as shallow burial.

[5] This frequently involves the waste materials being processed into stable solid forms using encapsulants such as cement, followed by emplacement in dedicated storage facilities.

[6] This will likely consist of sealing up of the facility, followed by a period of monitoring, and potentially the leaving of surface ‘markers’ to warn future generations of the hazards buried there.

[7] Release of radionuclides would likely not occur from passivated wastes, but could feasibly occur from any waste materials remaining in uncontrolled storage conditions.

[8] Others include chemical pollutants, microplastics and nano-materials.

[1]. El-Showk, S. (2022) Final Resting Place.  Science, 375, 6583.

[2].  SKB (2017) Developing Strategies for Acquisition and Control of Bentonite for a High Level Waste Repository.  Technical Report TR-16-14.

[3] Baily, R., Wellesley, L. (2017) Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade.  Chatham House Report.

[4]. Sandia National Laboratories (1993) Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.  Available online: [Accessed 06 February 2024].

[5]. United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (2023) Uninsurable Future.  Available online: [Accessed 02 February 2024].

[6]. Financial Times (2024) Overlapping crises could fracture the global financial system.  Available online: [Accessed 02 February 2024].

[7]. Hagens, N. (2020) Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism.  Ecological Economics, Volume 169, 106520.

[8]. World Economic Forum (2023) How to rebuild trust in institutions: results, results, results.  Available online: [Accessed 02 February 2024].

[9]. Jørgensen, P. S. et al. (2023) Evolution of the polycrisis: Anthropocene traps that challenge global sustainability.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 379: 20220261.

[10]. Persson, L. et al. (2022) Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities.  Environmental Science & Technology, 56, 3, 1510–1521.

Nick King

Nick King is a chartered earth and environmental scientist working primarily in professional consulting and the energy industry. He has worked with the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University since 2018 on subject areas including energy and global risk and is also affiliated with the Schumacher Institute think tank. He has also presented and written opinion pieces about a number of environmental and systems thinking topics.