14
$\begingroup$

Assuming a planet with (water) oceans and technology similar to that on (current) earth, but instead of storing the radioactive waste in caves, they just dumped it into the ocean (in strong, heavy containers such that it does not leak) - what would be the environmental impact?

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Water is an excellent shield for radiation. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Nov 17 '14 at 22:52
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not much really, assuming the containers contained the radiation and didn't leak over time or under the pressure (big assumption)...if it's isolated, does it really matter where it's isolated? $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Nov 17 '14 at 22:59
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ If you remove the "does not leak" part, this could get interesting. Related: what-if.xkcd.com/29 $\endgroup$ – Crabgor Nov 18 '14 at 0:08
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ If I removed the "does not leak" part, then it would be just like earth, wouldn't it? $\endgroup$ – user2813274 Nov 18 '14 at 3:39
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ One of the nicer idea's I've heard is dropping waste not just into the ocean, but into the pacific subduction zone. That's probably the one place where you will absolutely never ever get anything back from, ever. Also considering, that most of the earths core is heated by radioactive decay, it's not like a few more decaying isotopes is gonna hurt it. You could always incorporate that into your plan. Sadly, I don't have the geophysics under my belt to say how long it would take to reach from the sea floor to the mantle. $\endgroup$ – Sidney Nov 18 '14 at 15:28
25
$\begingroup$

Assuming containers that don't leak? Not much, because water is an excellent radiation shield. If you just piled the containers up (carefully, so as to avoid accidentally assembling a critical mass), you'd get a dead zone extending a few meters outwards from the pile. Over time, a dead-but-not-decomposing pile of sea life would build up in and around the dump site, eventually burying it and keeping the pile from growing further. Outside of the dead zone, the rest of the ocean will continue on unconcerned.

The trick is making containers that don't leak. The ocean is a rather hostile environment for most materials.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "The ocean is a rather hostile environment for most materials" -- for evidence of which, consider what sand is made of ;-) $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 18 '14 at 15:09
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Isn't sand made from mountains? :o) $\endgroup$ – JimmyB Nov 18 '14 at 15:21
10
$\begingroup$

It looks exactly like our society, because we've done this. It was one of the things Greenpeace were heavily against in the 80s and 90s.

There are also a number of sunken nuclear submarines, and tons of contaminated water from Fukushima.

Dilution is very powerful and the ocean is very large. The nearest this might come to a risk is the biological re-concentration of certain materials (Iodine, cesium) through the food chain.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

One method that has been considered for disposal of nuclear waste is to put it in containers and drop it into deep ocean mud. The objective is to get the container to sink into the mud, once it's buried it doesn't matter if the container fails. The impact is basically zero.

Even if you don't bury the containers the effect is minimal. It's hundreds of years before the water comes up to the surface, during that time most of the radioactivity will have decayed (especially if you remove the useful stuff first.)

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The half-life of uranium-238 is about 4.47 billion years and that of uranium-235 is 704 million years. Hundrets of years are literally nothing. $\endgroup$ – Sempie Nov 18 '14 at 6:33
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Sempie Hundreds of year it is not nothing. It is enough for the guy dumping the waste to pocket the benefits and die of old age, leaving the effects of the contaminationto someone else's grandgrandgrand-children. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Nov 18 '14 at 8:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ True that lol. But basicly my comment refered to "most of the radioactivity will have decayed", it will not. $\endgroup$ – Sempie Nov 18 '14 at 14:14
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ The longer the half-life of an isotope the less 'intense' the radiation per time unit. - How many of the 1000 U238 atoms I swallowed will have decayed inside me when I'm 100 years old? $\endgroup$ – JimmyB Nov 18 '14 at 15:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If you drop it in a trench, in the long term subduction will draw it into the mantle. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Nov 20 '14 at 19:04
3
$\begingroup$

[Edit:
1) This is too much for a comment, but it sets you on your way
2) I am not going to do all this homework, that takes hours]

Assuming that the containers will break down you will have to make believable estimates of:

1) Half-life of radioactive isotopes considered dangerous to life.

2) Average time it takes the containers to break down and isotopes to seep out (and it makes a whole lot of difference if these are e.g. contained in glass-like materials).

3) The time it will take for these isotopes to ascend from the deep sea to shallow waters where they will have an impact on life - most importantly on our sea food, with its accumulation effects.

4) Probable health effects of continuous exposure to low levels of radiation.

Points 1) and 2) can be found with some research. 3) is more difficult. The speed of vertical convection of the water mass is hard to guess. Quoting from Chapter 8 - Ocean circulation, of "Introduction to Ocean Sciences" by Douglas A. Segar:
Thermohaline circulation is difficult to study, and most of our knowledge of it comes from studies of density and other characteristics of the deep-ocean water masses. Much of our understanding of thermohaline circulation comes from modeling studies, but the models are themselves limited by the relatively small amount of data that is available to calibrate and test them

Read that publication from the section 'Thermohaline circulation' at page 190 to get a general idea and make your estimates.

For point 4) we do have some information from nuclear accidents, atomic bomb blasts and industry workers; you would have to match their exposure doses to the ones you estimate coming out of your back-of-th-envelope calculations for 1) - 3)

Update:
And I forgot the obvious 5) Amount of material that was dumped

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ While I like this answer's helpfulness in saying what needs to be determined, would they not be better as comments that could then be used to make an answer focusing on what the environmental impacts might be? Oh, and welcome to Worldbuilding :-) $\endgroup$ – Mourdos Nov 18 '14 at 11:22
0
$\begingroup$

Maybe they will not get problems with global warming and oil wars and have enough power to make as much drinking water as they need.

There are few down sides if the containers do not leak EVER, but if containers are found to be leaking it is VERY hard to do anything about them.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Dumping into the ocean is one of the safest methods

As much as some like to try to portray nuclear waste as a sort of radioactive Bogey Man, the reality of it is that nuclear waste is boringly easy to deal with. This comes from the fact that the substances that necessitates long term storage — Plutonium, Americium and the other Actinides — have a perculiar chemical quality:

All the long term nuclear waste loves rock and mud

Stick nuclear waste in mud and it remains there.

And here is the thing that is so neat about oceans:

There is a lot of mud in the oceans

So if we were to completely ignore the public relations nightmare that stems from the words "Hey, let us chuck our nuclear waste in the sea", this is actually an extremely effective and safe method of storing nuclear waste. You find a big geologically inactive mud flat in and ocean, put the containers on that, and let them slowly sink down into the mud. And that is all she wrote.

$\endgroup$
-1
$\begingroup$

It would pollute their oceans, simply put. It is not a good idea to dump waste into oceans. I can see how oceans are a good shield for radiation, but we depend on the oceans, and putting waste into them is not a good idea.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.