Saturday, August 20, 2011

Nuclear Waste Storage: An Intermediate Option

Robert Bryce, a successful author on energy policy, recently wrote an op-ed in Politico encouraging the U.S. to store nuclear waste on government land.

His thesis is that, given the post-Fukushima Daiichi danger of storing spent nuclear fuel (SNF) on the grounds of reactors, the federal government should move it to regional collection centers on federal land, which is what people in the nuclear industry have been saying for awhile. This gets rid of the problems of moving the waste long-distance to Yucca Mountain (in the middle of the desert), which is a bad idea anyway, and would save the federal government billions of dollars in lawsuits.

I don't disagree with Bryce, but I want to clarify a couple of key points. First of all, the meltdown at Fukushima Daiici was exacerbated by spent nuclear fuel storage, yes. But there are two kinds of fuel storage. After being removed from the reactor core, nuclear fuel rods typically spend around five years in a pool of water, called the spent fuel pool, cooling off. After they're cool enough to handle, they're packed into giant casks and kept on the grounds of the plant from whence they came. Bryce's plan would fix the problem with the casks, which definitely needs fixing, but the pools are what went wrong at Fukushima and they're non-negotiable. There's not another practical way to cool down the waste, and there's not really another place to put it for the five years it needs to cool off. In this sense, his plan would lessen, but not remove, the danger of having waste on the grounds of each reactor.

Secondly, regional waste collection centers reduce the dangers of transporting waste by reducing the distance each cask has to travel, but they do not eliminate it. Any plan to relocate the waste from its current scattered state (at all 104 currently operating reactors, plus several other sites) has to take that into account. The casks are tested against falls, fires and floods, but they are not invulnerable (particularly to periods of extended heat; a truck crashing and catching on fire in a tunnel, for example) and should not be treated as such in the planning process.

Finally, waste collection centers are a first step, not a longest-term solution. The next step should be the construction of reprocessing plants to turn SNF into mixed-oxide fuels, which can be fed back into nuclear reactors and used to generate power. Because of the low price of uranium, there is little financial incentive to do this right now, but a reprocessing plant is the only known way to get rid of nuclear waste permanently. They will be expensive and hard to fund while the price of uranium remains low, but if nuclear power is still a part of the U.S.'s energy generation when the price rises, we will definitely need reprocessing technology. The time to make a start on that is now.

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