NUCLEAR WASTE: The U.S. still lacks a repository for used nuclear fuel, leaving old fuel to linger on the site of former nuclear power plants, like the dry cask storage pictured here on the site of Maine Yankee. Image: Courtesy of Maine Yankee
Nestled more than half a kilometer deep in a salt mine, the plutonium slowly decays, taking some 250,000 years to become uranium. As the U.S. debates what to do with the nuclear waste produced by its fleet of 104 reactors, the radioactive legacy of decades of nuclear bomb-making sits entombed in the U.S. Department of Energy's (DoE) Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M.
Now the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, a diverse group of former politicians, industry representatives and academics, has delivered its draft report on what to do with the rest of the nation's nuclear waste. In it, the commission calls for "prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities," such as the one built at Yucca Mountain in Nevada that has been mired in controversy, as well as "prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated interim storage facilities."
Since 2009, when President Barack Obama halted work on Yucca Mountain and added it to the list of failed potential nuclear waste sites, such as the one at Lyons, Kans., the U.S. has lacked a long-term solution to its growing stockpile of nuclear waste. So the roughly 65,000 metric tons of waste sits where it has been for decades—in glowing blue pools of cool water (for fresh spent fuel) or in giant concrete and steel casks (for older spent material). For both types, storage means either resting on the grounds of an operating nuclear power plant or on the site of a former nuclear power plant that has been torn down. The meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan this past spring highlighted the risks of such a storage plan when at least one of its spent-fuel pools lost water, causing the stored rods to melt.
The key is making sure the spent fuel stays cool—and finding a local community that accepts the risk of having it around. Such a "consent based" approach has worked well in Finland and Sweden, and highlights the flaws in the process that led to Yucca Mountain, which was essentially selected by congressional fiat in the 1980s.
In its draft report, the commission seems to have learned from the past and in essence is asking one or more communities and states to volunteer to host the nation's nuclear waste. Should such volunteers be found, whether for the short- or long-haul, the process would then begin anew of attempting to site and build a repository.
Possibly, fuel could be stored at existing facilities if they can be expanded. WIPP is one such option, but a problem with it is that its salt walls will slowly ooze down and permanently sequester the radioactive waste. Should future societies come to determine that spent nuclear fuel could be reprocessed or otherwise reused, it will require mining it out of the salt. In fact, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was designed specifically so that the stored spent nuclear fuel could be pulled out and reused if that became desirable. (Of course, some experts see the oozing salt to cover the used nuclear fuel as a positive attribute.)
Answering the questions about reprocessing or recycling spent nuclear fuel remains an open debate, the commission notes. Regardless, deep geologic disposal—either in a mine or a deep borehole—is the only "responsible way" to deal with the issue long-term, according to the commission's draft report, even if reprocessing becomes the norm. After all, the report notes, "all of the spent fuel reprocessing or recycle options already available or under active development at this time still generate waste."
The panel did not address where either an interim or long-term storage facility should be located, nor did it rule out the Yucca Mountain site. More than $9 billion have already been spent to make Yucca ready. Even so, the U.S. already has more nuclear waste than Yucca was designed to hold, so another site must be found—and the commission also suggests that the U.S. might want to take spent nuclear fuel from other countries to avoid nuclear weapon proliferation in future. Regardless, the commission estimates that the security savings from consolidating spent fuel alone "would be enough to pay for that [new] facility," or at least $350 million per year.
The group also recommends that a specific federal corporation take over waste-management duties from the DoE. That corporation would also obtain access to the roughly $750 million collected in fees each year for each kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity—a $25-billion waste disposal chest that has yet to be used. In the meantime, the DoE should continue to invest in nuclear technology research and development, both to improve existing reactors and to develop new nuclear technologies.
Without a long-term solution to spent nuclear fuel, a much anticipated nuclear renaissance in the U.S. remains unlikely. Nine states have explicit moratoria on new nuclear power until a storage solution emerges, although work proceeds on four new nuclear reactors in Georgia and South Carolina.
The commission will be taking comments on the draft report until October 31.