The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

Introducing: Physics Students

Some of my Physics Students at the Jagiellonian University: Piotr, Krzysztof, Karol, Lila, Pawel, Mariusz, Szymon, I, Pawel & Krzysztof. Behind the camera: Przemek.

Time has come to present to you, global English learners, some pieces of writing signed by some of my Physics students. As this blog develops I am glad to include as many such scientific pieces as possible.

Here’s an interesting paper signed by Piotr (the first on the left-hand side in the photo, barely visible).

Read the essay below, his take on ways of dealing with toxic waste.


Nuclear Waste

By  Piotr Czarnik

Radioactive waste is probably one of the most feared types of waste. One of the reasons why this situation is a common belief is that radioactivity is a phenomenon occurring only as the result of human activity. In fact, radioactivity is a natural property of some substances, and as such, it is quite common. It is connected with the instability of atomic nuclei (only a part of which have this property) which could emit particles capable of the damage to or even the destruction of cells. Radioactive nuclei, which are called radioactive isotopes by physicists, naturally occur in rocks, the walls of our houses, in food, and, eventually, even in our bodies. UNSECAR calculated that in 2000 natural radiation (measured by effective dose per capita) absorbed by our bodies was 6 times larger than the radiation produced by man-made sources. Among them the most significant were diagnostic medical experiments. The effective dose coming from radioactive waste was less than 1 percent of the total effective dose. In spite of its small impact on our health, which is a result of high standards of security used during process of their storage, its utilization poses a severe problem.

Radioactive waste, which has the highest level of radioactivity, is produced by nuclear reactors in nuclear plants. The nuclear fuel used contains a high percentage of radioactive isotopes of uranium or plutonium. After some time it becomes unsuitable for use because of the toxic byproducts of the reactor. Nevertheless, it is still highly radioactive, just like the toxic byproducts themselves, which have a large half-life span. The term half-life refers to the time period in which half of the nuclei in an isotope will decay. Because the reactor produces isotopes with a long half-life, it was estimated that the waste produced would be potentially dangerous even after a million years. Moreover, this waste contains a lot of plutonium, which is a basic material used to construct an atomic bomb. The extraction of plutonium from this waste is a very difficult and dangerous task, one that requires advanced technology. However, it is possible.

The properties of nuclear waste described above make the process of storage or utilization of waste extremely important. Before beginning the process of the storage in its final destination, it should be transformed into a form which could not react with the environment. There are propositions as to how this process should look, but there is not a common agreement on which of them should be commonly used and if they are sufficiently safe. One of them is a process of synthetic rock (Synrock) production during which radioactive isotopes become minerals. After that process nuclear waste should be stored in a safe place. One of the most realistic propositions is storing it in geologically inactive formations, 500 – 1000 meters below the surface of the ground, in old mines or drills made for that purpose.  Another very interesting proposition is storing it in subduction zones in which tectonic plates sink into the Earth’s mantle, which could provide its permanent removal from our environment. Another possibility is its storage in outer space, but it is temporally impossible because of the high rate of rocket launches failure. Another interesting approach dealing with nuclear waste is its transmutation into non-radioactive isotopes in specially designed reactors. This method provides its total utilization.

The question of how to deal with radioactive waste efficiently and safely is still unanswered. Continous progress in science and technology and a lot of interesting ideas which was proposed give us hope that an answer will be found in the near future. Paradoxically, dealing with this kind of waste, because of its special character, could be much easier than dealing with more common types of pollution, which, are in fact, causing more casualties than nuclear waste.



Filed under: 6►THEME CHEST, ■ Physics, ■ Science & Technology, ■ Writing Samples

20 Responses

  1. Iza B. says:

    I totally agree with the statement that nuclear wastes are ‘safer’ than those coming from e.g. carbon power stations. It should be commonly known that ‘nuclear’ doesn’t mean dangerous but quite the contrary. The only type of pollution which is produced by nuclear power plants is this described above and in fact these factories don’t pollute the air at all! Their breakdowns are very rare and always caused by human failure, as it was for instance in Czarnobyl. We can very simply prevent them. The society should be more aware that nuclear power is our future.

    • Alina Alens says:

      You can read more on biowaste and biowaste laws here.

      Here’s some background on this topic.

      Biowaste accounts for 30%-45 % of municipal solid waste in Europe.

      The European Commission defines biowaste as biodegradable garden and park waste, food and kitchen waste from households, restaurants, catering and retail premises, and comparable waste from food processing plants. The definition does not include forestry or agricultural residues, manure, sewage sludge or other biodegradable waste, such as natural textiles, paper or processed wood.

      The main environmental threat from biowaste is methane production from landfill. Methane is said to be over 20 times more environmentally harmful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

      The EU’s Landfill Directive obliges member states to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste in landfill by 65% by 2016 compared to 1995 levels. But it does not give countries binding specifications on what to do with it: a situation that has led most member states to opt for incineration.

      According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), biowaste management in the EU 27 differs widely, with member states divided into three groups: those relying on incineration, those with high recovery rates and those with a lot of landfill.

      In December 2008, the Commission published a Green Paper on biowaste management in the EU, and launched a consultation process to assess whether a specific, stand-alone EU Biowaste Directive is needed.

  2. Tomek B. says:

    It is worth mentioning that coal and other hydrocarbons which are used in conventional power plants also contain radioactive isotopes. The smoke and ash produced during electricity production are emitted into the atmosphere and contaminate it also with radioactive pollution. Not many people know that more radioactive pollution is emitted into environment from conventional power plants than from nuclear power plants.

  3. Patryk-Filip says:

    I want to see a nuclear power station in Poland because of the price of energy, but what about the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe during the hypothetical war?

    How “can we prevent them very simply” ???

    • Rafał G. says:

      Yes, the nuclear power station in Poland is a very good idea. The one was already built in 80’s in Żarnowiec, but then there was a catastrophe of Czarnobyl and people from Żarnowiec started demonstrating and the nuclear power station wasn’t ever built.
      However nuclear power station is of course the future of producing the energy.

    • Iza B. says:

      It’s really very simple 🙂
      When an atomic nucleus such as uranium-235 absorbs a neutron, it may undergo nuclear fission and starts a nuclear chain reaction. In this way kinetic energy is released and we obtain energy.
      When there is a war threat we do not just switch on the reactor so neutrons are not produced and no nuclear fission starts. It’s impossible to initiate this process by bombing a nuclear reactor 🙂
      Uranium-235 is a normal element which can be found on Earth and it’s very complicated to force it to fissure.

  4. Pawel D says:

    It’s quite simple: in order to create a nuclear explosion in the nuclear power plant you have to hit it with a nuke or plant one inside.

    In certain (already obsolete, I think) types of nuclear plants, you could detonate a conventional bomb (however a rather big one) inside and spread a small amount of nuclear wastes around, but definitely nothing serious and definitely nothing which could be considered strategically valuable (for a potential aggressor).

    And as for Chernobyl: it wasn’t even a “typical” human mistake, because we know that Russians were deliberately messing with reactors, against regulations and safety protocols and with a lot of complete ignorance in the process.

    • Krzysztof says:

      I’d like to add a comment here. That’s right that Chernobyl catastrophe is frequently used as an argument against nuclear power. We should remember that this tragedy was caused by irresponsibility of authorities, maybe I will try to find the whole story and publish here.

      The second thing is that today we have more modern solutions and for example there was a plan to build a nuclear power plant in Poland. The construction had started in Zarnowiec before Chernobyl exploded. Later it was given up and the reactor was sold to Finland where it works until today without any problems.

      • Tomek B says:

        Here is a detailed description from the English Wikipedia:

      • Magdalena G. says:

        As for the first part of Krzysztof’s post – I agree. One of our lecturers once said that the Chernobyl case has to be considered not as simply nuclear plant explosion, but as an explosion of a nuclear plant located in the former ZSRR. With emphasis on the “located in ZSRR” part.
        I don’t remember the whole story either (and don’t have time to search for it), but I recall that somebody was doing an “experiment” in “what will occur if we do this and that” style, which involved turning off at least some of the safety system.

      • Przemek says:

        @Magdalena G:

        You’re right with the “located in the USSR” remark. Another question arises when one asks why there were no such facilities in the rest of Europe or in the USA? One can claim that they weren’t that advanced with technology, but the truth is that they knew this type of reactors are unstable under some conditions. Therefore, although they were perfectly suited for producing plutonium (for nuclear bombs for example), no one in the western countries thought, at least officially, about building reactors of this type.

      • swistak says:

        The breakdown in Czarnobyl was caused by 2 factors, as far I know:
        1. human error
        2. a structural defect of the reactor
        (these statements were the results of the Russian comittee’s work).
        Engineers (I emphasize this word) wanted to check how would a turbine work while a low-power reactor was also working; they didn’t switch off the reactor, but reduced its power. In the meantime, the production of free neutrons was so high that they couldn’t stop the reaction after increasing the power.

      • Przemek says:

        Yeah, I’ve heard more or less the same.
        In addition to that, there is one thing which is frequently misunderstood. In fact, there was no nuclear explosion in the facility. Instead, two chemical ones happened resulting in a huge fire.

  5. Przemek says:

    It’s also good to be aware of the fact that nature was first if it comes to running the nuclear reaction with Uranium on Earth 😉

    Check this out:

  6. karol says:

    Some years ago I attended a lecture of Mr. Zbigniew Jaworowski, the chief of Polish radiology security during the Chernobyl catastrophe, and he said that as a result of this about 200 people died, mostly the crew of the power plant, and the ones in the rescue service. Statistically the hydro plants are more dangerous (for example the one in China where about 200,000 people died).

  7. swistak says:

    “The extraction of plutonium from this waste is a very difficult and dangerous task, one that requires advanced technology. However, it is possible.”
    There is a well-known technique of obtaining plutonium for atomic bombs.
    If it comes to the processing of radioactive waste, it may be done by using a subcritical reactor assisted by the spallation technique as a neutron source. Then the waste roots may be used and “burnt” more effectively.

  8. Laska says:

    I really enjoyed reading Piotrek’s essay.
    Look at the faces in the photo, they will be famous one day 😛

    • Piotrek says:

      Especially this irreplaceable piece of electronic equipment, second from the right in the picture above..

      i’m wondering where i was when this photo was taken.. but 8 men and 2 women sounds better than 9 men and 2 women.

  9. Chrisco says:

    Quite amazing article. The message (meritum) included can easily change the point of view of many people, especially those who are convinced that thebnuclear infrastructure is highly harmful… After reading the text it doesn’t seem so… In Poland people are still skeptical… Nevertheless,we should talk the problem over and make some benefiting decisions. Using nuclear power might ensure us with a real energetic independence from Russia…

    • Alina Alens says:

      Chrisco, I’m glad you enjoyed this essay!
      There are many other interesting findings that I discovered from talking to the Physics students I taught. I hope to post more of their papers, so keep stopping by.

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