Radioactive waste: think now about the consequences later on

Dutch gas production from the Groningen gas field comes to an end and global warming must be halted. Not surprisingly, therefore, that in the Netherlands voices are again being raised in favour of switching to nuclear energy, particularly among young people, as reported by Dutch newspaper Trouw recently ('Half of young people want new nuclear power plants'). For the first time, all information has now been brought together on the hottest issue with this energy source: what to do with the waste? Fifty students from Utrecht University looked at this issue from a wide range of perspectives: those of policy, the composition of the subsurface, the development of technological knowledge and how we should involve future generations in the waste. The website offers a handy overview of their findings, which policymakers can also benefit from.

The advantages of nuclear power are well known: nuclear power causes hardly any CO2 emissions and, unlike wind and solar power, makes a minimal claim on space, landscape or raw materials. The discussion about the disadvantages, especially the radioactive waste, is almost as old as the technology itself. "Our website is not intended as an unequivocal position for or against nuclear energy," clarifies Angel Aardse, student of Natural Sciences and Innovation Management (NS&I). "We mainly want to create awareness, so that well-considered choices can be made."


"The discussion is indeed more nuanced," agrees Leonoor van Kersbergen, a student of Earth Sciences. She points out that it is not only nuclear power plants that produce radioactive waste. "Medicine producers, industry, agriculture, science and healthcare also produce radioactive waste. A solution will have to be found for that too."

Future-proof communication

The students investigated four themes that have to be taken into account when storing radioactive waste. They looked at administrative and societal issues, for example. Anna Fial, a student of Human Geography and Spatial Planning: "You can have good rules in place at the moment, but who can guarantee that the controlling bodies will still be there? Or that they will continue to think carefully about the storage of nuclear waste in the long term?" Future-proof communication must also be considered. "Who knows, in a few thousand years the symbols used today may no longer be understood at all," adds Lotta Jüchtern, student of Global Sustainability Science. And storage is currently still a matter for national governments. "Wouldn't it be better to organise this in an international context? And what would that require?", wonders her fellow student Liv Angerer. The students point out that geological, planning and climatological aspects also play a role. Daan Hofstra, like Angel Aardse a NS&I student: "Space is limited in a country like the Netherlands and that problem is only getting worse now that the sea level is rising and the ground is subsiding in some parts of the country. So you need to know what you are doing if you decide to store nuclear waste on the coast. Or if you decide to store it underground - who knows, that might conflict with the plans of future generations. What then justifies our choices for storage locations?"

Honours project

The website is the result of a project within the Geosciences Honours College for students of the Faculty of Geosciences who are looking for more challenge, breadth or depth. This specific project originated from contacts of Utrecht University planetary scientist Dr Inge Loes ten Kate with the Rathenau Institute. To mark the launch of the website, the students involved gave a presentation for representatives of the Rathenau Institute, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and other experts. Project leader Dhoya Snijders of the Rathenau Institute: "Radioactive waste is often dismissed as a technical subject, but these students show that it really is a social issue. To solve it, we need all kinds of different perspectives, as well as this kind of idealism, creativity and new energy."