02 Environmental Research

2023 Topic: Storing and disposing of nuclear waste

This event is limited to the first 18 entries


The fusion of light nuclei and the fission of heavy nuclei produce an enormous amount of energy. The energy density of such nuclear sources could be 100,000 times higher than that of conventional chemical sources, such as coal and natural gas. Although both fusion and fission have been realized as weapons (hydrogen and atomic bombs, respectively), only fission has been tamed for use as controlled energy source in fission nuclear reactors. Uranium 235 is the most common fuel in such reactors, which are used very broadly: from propelling submarines and ice breakers to generating electricity in nuclear power stations. Some countries rely on nuclear fission as a major source of electric power, with France leading at a whopping 69% of its electricity being nuclear. Overall, across the world, more than 400 nuclear reactors generate nearly 10% of global electricity. At the current rate of energy consumption by the world, the amount of fissile material available on Earth can last humanity for billions of years. Despite the significant resonance caused by the two major nuclear accidents, Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), nuclear power is clean and safe. The number of people who actually died from radiation exposure in those accidents (under 100) is very small when compared to 8+ million people dying annually due to the air pollution produced by fossil fuel power plants. The two major issues associated with the use of nuclear power are the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the accumulation of nuclear waste. Our focus today is on the latter. 



Part 1 - Conduct general literature research to address the following:

  • How do fission nuclear reactors work? What types of reactors exist nowadays and what designs are being explored for use in the near future?
  • What is nuclear waste? What’s in it? Can it be reused? What makes it dangerous? Can it be de-activated completely or at least partially? How long does it remain dangerous?
  • How and where nuclear waste is stored, both short and long term? How is it processed before storage?    
  • What are the future plans for nuclear waste storage and processing?
  • Come up with your own way for nuclear waste utilization or disposal. Be creative!

Part 2 - Conduct specific research on leaching of metal ions from glass

  • One approach to long-term nuclear waste storage is by extracting its radioactive components and immobilizing them into blocks made of glass or ceramics.
  • Learn about glasses and explain why embedding radioactive waste in a glass would make storage safer.
  • Use enclosed examples along with your own research to design and conduct an experiment where you embed (NON-RADIOACTIVE!) element (such as metal) into a glass and then conduct various leaching tests. Decide on the type of metal whose leaching will be easier to monitor and also on the environmental parameters that you can control to change the rate of leaching in your experiments. Stay away from highly toxic elements, such as LEAD. Consult your teacher before going ahead with your choice of element!
  • Based on the results of your tests, suggest the most optimal storage conditions that minimize the leaching.


Part 3 - Report of Student Understanding and Research Findings

A research paper that demonstrates an understanding of the information obtained from the literature research above and includes the following:

  • Types of nuclear fission reactors and principle components of nuclear waste they produce
  • Existing approaches to radioactive waste processing and storage. Known accidents and issues connected with nuclear waste storage. 
  • The properties of various glasses and their potential use for radioactive waste immobilization
  • Using the results of your experiments, suggest most optimal environmental conditions for minimizing the leaching when storing nuclear waste embedded in the glass. Also, provide a science-based argument for (or against) the use of in-glass immobilization for nuclear waste storage.
  • Proper citations to credible reference material.

Event Day

Teams will make a short presentation via PowerPoint/ Slides or a poster. Presentations will be scheduled for the morning of the Chemistry Olympics (6 minutes maximum: 3 minute prepared presentation + 3 minutes Q&A). This presentation should focus solely on the results obtained in Part 2 and should highlight the students' understanding of environmental conditions affecting the leaching of chemicals (such as metal ions) out of glass. Students must show their understanding of the processes occurring during leaching and their dependence on environmental conditions, and use calculations in support of their conclusions, when possible (e.g., to evaluate the rate of release). Calculated data should be presented to the judges in a graphical/ pictorial manner, when appropriate. Conclusions made should be clearly supported by the calculated data and the literature data.



Learn about the requirements concerning Primary Sources, formatting and citations for your research paper: Research Guidelines and Requirements

The Environmental Research Paper must be received by the Director of the NJCO by the deadline indicated in: Requirement Overview.


Written report 40% total

  • Accuracy of technical component(s).
  • Depth of understanding of the operating principles of fission nuclear reactors, processes leading to the accumulation of radioactive products as a result of nuclear reactor operation, and nuclear waste processing and storage.
  • Depth of understanding of glasses as a material from both chemical and physical perspectives, and of the connection of the glass properties with its use for nuclear waste immobilization and storage.
  • Demonstration of understanding of the processes occurring during immobilization of metals into glass and methods used in your experiments for studying the leaching of metal ions.
  • Support of argument for or against the use of immobilizing into glass for nuclear waste storage. The argument must include evidentiary statements and be grounded in good reasoning.
  • Quality of references and appropriate citations.

Experiment and Results 20% total

  • Evidence of good scientific method
  • Clear experimental procedure
  • Graphical analysis of results

Presentation, 40% total

  • Technical knowledge of subject
  • Presentation quality,
  • Answers to questions



Supplemental information on making glass