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Nuclear applications—be it in the form of electricity production, weapon creation, etc.—inevitably involves radioactive waste.

  • When was it realized that there might be a need for a specialized waste disposal process? How does this date compare to landmarks in nuclear theory/experiment/refinement?
  • What was the first such disposal facility?
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    $\begingroup$ I asked this question in part because I feel it's border line as to whether or not it should be on topic for this site. On the one hand, waste disposal superficially seems more like engineering; on the other, it's a question as to how complete scientific knowledge was surrounding the development of nuclear theory & application. My gut tells me the latter point wins out, but I thought it'd be a good idea to bring up. $\endgroup$ – BMS Oct 30 '14 at 15:52
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While it may have been known that a need for safe storage of nuclear waste existed before 1943-1944, it was certainly known by 1944.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory began research and development on the first nuclear weapon in 1943 LANL under the Manhattan Project which lasted from 1942 to 1946. The B Reactor at the Hanford site in Washington state was the first reactor to produce plutonium on a full scale, and that was the source of the first nuclear test bombs, as well as the actual bombs dropped on Japan. That reactor was built and in production by 1944.

The experiments, and this development, created a substantial amount of waste. This is the sort of waste that once created in and around 1943-1944 would immediately present itself as being quite hazardous and thus in immediate need of safe disposal. While I do not see any sources telling us that droves of scientists knew that this material was toxic, nor do I see that droves of scientists had to die before we discovered that this material needed to be stored safely, we can deduce that certainly by 1943 there was a need for specialized waste disposal and storage by virtue of the fact that they were quite careful to store experimental waste underground in special containers at this time. Many of these early containers are causing trouble today, and that is old news.

At Hanford, waste was stored in underground tanks, and these are leaking today. I quote and source, "Some underground storage tanks filled with radioactive sludge from as early as the 1940s are slowly giving out, with 67 known to be leaking into the soil.". The fact that they tried to store it implies they knew of the problem.

This source suggests in the first sentence that "officially-designated material disposal areas" started at Los Alamos in 1944.

Generally it does not take days for scientists to recognize this sort of waste as being quite toxic and naturally the need for waste storage would occur as soon as the waste starts being created. While I say that the answer to your question is certainly by 1943, it appears that the Nazis buried what appears to be nuclear waste, and this has been a modern surprise, as historically no one thought the Germans had a program that was advanced enough to produce nuclear waste. Source for that: Nazi nuclear waste.

I am convinced that certainly by 1943 the need was known, and your question asks for a date. I suspect however that, in light of the human knowledge gained since the time of Marie Curie, that the scientists whether German or American knew quite well that they were about to create hazardous waste material that would need to be stored safely before they even began doing their work. In that light, someone may have known sooner than the WW2 start of nuclear weapons development that the process (theoretical before then) would require waste storage.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm slightly surprised at this, given that the 1940s had waste disposal practices that included dumping 10 tons of sodium in a lake. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Nov 12 '14 at 23:17
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty 10 ton of sodium in a lake would simply hydrolyze to sodium hydroxide. It is poisoning in dense concentrations and harmless in low, but what is the most important: it reacts with the natural carbon dioxide content of the waters and decays into sodium carbonate (which is a soon a natural component of the natural water resources). $\endgroup$ – peterh - Reinstate Monica Jan 22 '15 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ Afaik, Edward Teller wrote some papers about this before the first chain reaction reactor already. $\endgroup$ – peterh - Reinstate Monica Mar 2 '15 at 8:54
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Take a look at this handy-dandy webpage:

1957: A study by the National Academy of Science, determined that the federal government should build a permanent geologic repository for high-level nuclear waste.

To put this in perspective, the first time a nuclear reactor successfully generated a substantial amount of electricity was in 1951 (okay, it wasn't much, but still, it was a start). The first power plant to bring electricity to the power grid was in 1954, in Russia. Successful commercial reactors didn't open until the mid-1950s; considering this, the initial talk of waste disposal was rather early and on-time.

Later, though, federal activities regarding nuclear power slowed down. Flash-forward 25 years:

1982: The Nuclear Waste Policy Act required the US Department of Energy to start taking utilities’ spent fuel by Jan. 31, 1998. It directed DOE to begin studying sites for permanent repositories and established a schedule for that process.

But it took a while for them to get around to it:

1987: Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to require DOE to focus its efforts on studying Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the permanent repository site. The amendments also created a federal Nuclear Waste Negotiator to find a volunteer host for an interim storage facility or a permanent repository.

But Yucca Mountain really hasn't been so successful. Note, though, that I don't believe that it was the first planned storage site.

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Ignorance of the dangers of ionizing radiation is something you would have seen ca. 1905, when Marie Curie was working. (She was killed by the radiation she worked with.) The idea of a nuclear chain reaction was not proposed until much, much later -- by Szilard in 1933. By this time physicists had fairly good knowledge of the nucleus, neutrons and protons, the line of stability, the interaction of ionizing radiation with matter, and the health effects of ionizing radiation. In particular, we know almost nothing today that was not known in 1945 about the effects of low population doses of radiation.

What underwent further evolution after 1945 was not physicists' understanding of these issues but the conception of these issues in the minds of politicians and laypeople. In the popular consciousness, the 1950s, for example, were the era of monster movies in which radioactivity acquired various scary voodoo powers.

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