New nuclear plants, new nuclear waste

These days, nuclear energy is frequently spoken of as being in the midst of a ‘rebirth’ or renaissance, largely because of high oil prices and concerns about climate change. Those concerned about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions do need to give the technology some credit as a mechanism for producing large amounts of power with relatively limited climatic effects. That is no reason to ignore the problems with the technology – from water use to nuclear waste to long lead times – but it does compel the formulation of a considered response.

One possibility I came up with would be to require firms building new nuclear plants to build geological sequestration facilities for the nuclear waste the plant will produce over its lifetime before the plant can begin operation. That would probably further delay the deployment of the technology, but it would avoid boondoggles like the ongoing conflicts about Yucca Mountain. It would also be a step away from the “act now and worry about the consequences later” mentality that has infected so much of energy and environmental policy.

The response to such a demand, on the part of industry, might offer a better glimpse into what the true costs of nuclear power really are.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

17 thoughts on “New nuclear plants, new nuclear waste”

  1. Given how urgent it is to reduce GHG emissions, and how long it takes to establish nuclear waste storage sites, such an obligation probably isn’t reasonable now.

  2. Your suggestion is the very model of reasonableness. As R.K. suggests, though, anyone could tie up the licensing of such a facility until both the poles are completely thawed. In particular, the political organizations that complain the most about the wastes are also the organizations that lobby most loudly against dealing with them.

    As I see it, we either can use up all the fossil-fuel reserves and alter the climate in an unsustainable way, or we can produce some quantity of waste that has to be managed. Those wastes can be managed much more effectively than coal wastes can be, because of their much smaller size.

    I think that we, if I may speak for people generally, should be pressuring government officials to speed up the reprocessing program, even it does add a fraction of a cent to the cost of each KWH.

  3. You really cannot tell people: “We are going to need to dump some waste, can we put it near your town?”

    Nobody will go for it.

    You need to create the waste first, thus forcing someone to have it in their back yard: either in temporary storage or a geological repository.

    That is the cynical game people have been playing with Yucca Mountain all along.

  4. DOE begins uphill battle for repository’s full funding (04/07/2008)

    Katherine Ling, E&E Daily reporter

    The Energy Department will continue its fight to fully fund the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository before the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday.

    DOE wants to add back the $108 million cut from its budget request last year, bringing the total to $494 million for fiscal 2009. Last year’s drastic budget decrease was the work of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has vowed that the repository will never be built at the site about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

    Subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) originally cut $50 million from the White House’s 2008 request.

    DOE has adjusted its funding priorities and will submit the license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in June anyway, said Ward Sproat, the director of DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

    But multi-year cuts have curtailed the project’s ability to meet a previous best opening date of 2017. Last year’s appropriation of about $386 million left no money for preparing transportation rail lines or for paying about 900 workers, Sproat said.

    Sproat has said he will present to Congress an altered budget that maintains a flat-line request around $500 million for the next few years until DOE receives construction authorization from NRC.

    But funding will have to increase into the billions once construction starts and it will be necessary to change the laws governing the Nuclear Waste Fund, according to Sproat, who is likely to plead the case again before the panel. The Nuclear Waste Fund is a collection of per-kilowatt-hour fees that utilities are legally obligated to pay to finance waste disposal. The fund currently has around $20 billion, but legislative loopholes have prevented its use for current project activities.

    Utilities agreed to pay the fee in return for DOE removing the spent nuclear fuel from their power plants, starting in 1998. A decade later the 76 power generating companies who signed the contract are clamoring to be reimbursed for maintaining and storing the hazardous material, many through lawsuits. DOE said it could be liable for $7 billion, although industry estimates it could reach $50 billion.

    Some lawmakers have started to seriously consider alternatives to Yucca Mountain. Subcommittee ranking member Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) is pushing hard to jump start a U.S. reprocessing program — although that would also produce a waste stream that would need to be stored eventually.

    Domenici and other members of Congress — including both Democratic presidential candidates — are also contemplating a set of interim storage facilities for each region around the country that would not require the same licensing requirements that a long-term facility does.

    Sproat has discouraged this idea as the projects will likely run into similar siting obstacles and will take even more time and money.

    The Senate panel will also consider DOE’s other nuclear waste budget — the Office of Environmental Management — that funds the cleanup of former nuclear weapons production facilities and nuclear energy research sites. DOE has requested $5.5 billion to manage the Cold War legacy waste but has confirmed that the request will not be enough to meet many of the projects’ milestones.

    This year’s request is $167 million lower than the 2008 budget but Assistant Energy Secretary James Rispoli said it would take $900 million to keep the program on schedule.

    Schedule: The hearing is Wednesday, April 9, at 9:30 a.m. in 192 Dirksen.

    Witnesses: James Rispoli, assistant secretary for Environmental Management, DOE; and Edward Sproat, director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, DOE.

  5. Brit says Canada should go nuclear

    Nuclear power has to be an integral part of a country that seeks to tackle climate change and achieve energy security, Great Britain’s energy minister told a meeting of Calgary business people yesterday.

    (The Calgary Sun; 20080411)

  6. Not in My Back Yucca
    What are our alternatives for storing radioactive waste?
    By Brendan I. Koerner
    Posted Tuesday, April 15, 2008, at 8:11 AM ET

    It seems like the good citizens of Nevada would sooner elect an orangutan as governor than let the federal government fill Yucca Mountain with radioactive waste. Can’t blame them, I guess, but that spent nuclear fuel has to go somewhere. What, then, are the alternatives to stashing it beneath Yucca Mountain?

  7. Nuclear power is now offered as an alternative to coal power. But, in actuality, Big Nuke is Big Carbon’s mad-scientist cousin. Both externalize their costs: To the land, to the atmosphere, to miners, to consumers, to communities near the mines and refining facilities, and especially to future generations who will live with the long-term consequences of our short-term gains. The damage that both do is, of course, justified as necessary and unavoidable.

  8. NUCLEAR WASTE: Forget the high-tech encapsulation systems and just bury it, professor says (06/25/2008)

    Lisa Haidostian, ClimateWire reporter

    Burying nuclear waste deep below the earth’s surface should result in “much less than” one death per year in the United States, a nuclear energy expert said yesterday.

    The question of what to do with nuclear waste has long been seen as the roadblock to expanded development of a nuclear energy program in the United States, but the answer, according to Bernard Cohen, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Pittsburgh, is “rational,” “easy to defend,” “inexpensive” and not so complicated.

    In a Marshall Institute policy outlook called “Radioactive Waste Disposal: Nature’s Way vs. Government’s Way,” Cohen asserts that instead of burying the waste using “elaborate artificial encapsulation,” scientists and policymakers should take their cue from the natural processes that have dictated the path of radioactive materials for millions of years.

    The U.S. Department of Energy has been involved for years in constructing an underground tunnel complex in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, where the spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants would be sealed in chambers and stored in canisters that are designed to resist water intrusion and heat.

    The fear, of course, is that over time radioactive waste can leak into the groundwater supply and eventually be ingested by people via potable water, exposing their organs to the radiation and causing cancer.

    A ‘simple’ alternative to Yucca Mountain?

    But Cohen asserts that by burying the waste about 2,000 feet into the earth, nature will “treat it as it treats other rocks containing radioactive materials,” and it would be “as secure from being dissolved [into the groundwater stream] as ordinary rock.”

    As an example, Cohen cites the Cigar Lake deposit in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, which contains 11 percent of the world’s known uranium reserves and consists of uranium dioxide, the same substance as the waste material that would be buried. It has remained 430 meters (1411 feet) below the surface for 1.3 billion years, but “no uranium can be detected in the ground above the deposit,” Cohen’s paper says.

    He also explains that by determining the number of cancer deaths caused by natural radioactive materials already present in the earth, we could figure out how many deaths would be caused by adding a certain amount more of waste.

    That number is less than one a year, which, he said, is minute in comparison to the number of deaths from air pollution caused by coal-fired power plants: about 10,000 a year in the United States.

    He explained that by studying the tendencies of naturally occurring radioactive materials in the ground, much of the uncertainty that would otherwise be present in the “government’s way” scenario is eliminated.

    The main problem with the government’s current approach, which has been to “depend heavily on technology to prevent, or at least greatly delay, encounters with groundwater,” is that if the radioactive material should make contact with groundwater, it will dissolve at a significantly higher rate, posing a much greater risk than the “nature’s way” approach.

  9. NUCLEAR: Is the solution to the U.S. waste problem in France? (05/18/2009)

    Spokesmen for Areva — the name of France’s majority state-owned complex of nuclear companies — regard this plant as the “crown jewel” of its technology. “Old fuel in, new fuel out. A pretty elegant solution,” said Mike McMahon, one of a number of Americans being trained at French facilities to learn the ropes so that they can bring the knowledge back to similar Areva facilities planned for the United States. The United States has the biggest nuclear power market on the planet, and Areva has laid ambitious plans to participate in its “nuclear renaissance.”

    McMahon works at the Melox facility in southeastern France, where the separated plutonium from La Hague is mixed with enriched uranium to make mixed oxide (MOX), which partially fuels 20 of France’s reactors and accounts for about 10 percent of the country’s electricity per year. Areva and the Shaw Group Inc. are building a similar plant for the U.S. Energy Department at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., to make use of excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

    The French are making their move at a time when U.S. nuclear policy for what engineers call managing the “back end” of the nuclear fuel cycle has been locked in a state of perpetual indecision. Since President Carter shut down the U.S. reprocessing program in the 1970s, U.S. policy has been to take used power plant fuel and bury it. In 1987, Congress designated Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the final resting place for the country’s nuclear waste, but the facility there has never opened. Now President Obama has proposed to stop federal funding for Yucca — which is strenuously opposed by Nevada politicians — while a new federal commission reviews Congress’ old policy.

    To be sure, the problems raised in dealing with the “back end” are not tidy or small, but they are being sorted out here. Areva and French government officials say the reprocessing solution reduces the volume of the highly radioactive nuclear waste by a factor of four to five by taking uranium and plutonium out of the storage equation. The wastes isolated in the glass logs will remain here until France constructs a deep geological repository — currently targeted for completion in 2025, although there are some Nevada-like protests over the chosen site.

    Japan, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy have shipped their wastes for reprocessing here in the past or are currently doing so. Eventually, after the residue from their wastes cools down, they will get it back for disposal.

    One result for the French is jobs. La Hague and Melox provide about 11,000 jobs and €479 million (about $624 million) for the local economy. According to Areva, the process costs consumers about 6 percent of the fuel costs per kilowatt-hour. Areva’s back-end unit — including cleanup of nuclear facilities — had revenues of €1.74 billion (about $2.3 billion) in 2007.

    As for President Obama, it appears his policy is research, research, research. The proposed budget for next year includes $192 million for fuel cycle research and development, but nothing for facilities. Energy Secretary Steven Chu says DOE will continue to research to develop reprocessing methods that are proliferation-resistant, but the technology is not ready yet to have any sort of “pilot” or demonstration facility.

    Areva, General Electric Co. and another unnamed vendor have asked the NRC to develop licensing procedures for reprocessing plants by 2012. Areva officials say the earliest a reprocessing plant could be built in the United States would be in the 2020-25 time frame, and that such a plant would cost about $20 billion to $25 billion.

  10. Monitor
    Trappings of waste

    Sep 3rd 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    Materials science: Plastic beads may provide a way to mop up radiation in nuclear power-stations and reduce the amount of radioactive waste

    NUCLEAR power does not emit greenhouse gases, but the technology does have another rather nasty by-product: radioactive waste. One big source of low-level waste is the water used to cool the core in the most common form of reactor, the pressurised-water reactor. A team of researchers led by Börje Sellergren of the University of Dortmund in Germany, and Sevilimedu Narasimhan of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Kalpakkam, India, think they have found a new way to deal with it. Their solution is to mop up the radioactivity in the water with plastic.

  11. Aborigines discuss nuclear proposal on tribal land
    By Phil Mercer
    BBC News, Sydney

    Aboriginal groups have held a public meeting to debate controversial plans to build Australia’s first nuclear waste dump on tribal land.

    The federal government has identified a remote cattle station north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory as a likely site.

    The proposal has caused deep divisions within the indigenous community.

    Ministers have indicated that the nuclear dump would not be built if landowners opposed it.

    In the next six years, nuclear waste that Australia sent to Europe for reprocessing will be returned.

  12. At the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi unit 1, where an explosion Saturday destroyed a building housing the reactor, the spent fuel pool, in accordance with General Electric’s design, is placed above the reactor. Tokyo Electric said it was trying to figure out how to maintain water levels in the pools, indicating that the normal safety systems there had failed, too. Failure to keep adequate water levels in a pool would lead to a catastrophic fire, said nuclear experts, some of whom think that unit 1’s pool may now be outside.

    “That would be like Chernobyl on steroids,” said Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer at Fairewinds Associates and a member of the public oversight panel for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is identical to the Fukushima Daiichi unit 1.

    People familiar with the plant said there are seven spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi, many of them densely packed.

    Gundersen said the unit 1 pool could have as much as 20 years of spent fuel rods, which are still radioactive.

  13. Report Urges Storing Spent Nuclear Fuel, Not Reprocessing It
    Published: April 26, 2011

    Experts on nuclear power predict that Japan’s Fukushima crisis will lead to a major rethinking of how spent nuclear fuel is handled in the United States but have cast doubt on a proposed solution: reprocessing the fuel to recover plutonium and other materials for reuse.
    The challenge at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan involves not only damage to three reactors but also the loss of cooling water in at least one pool of spent radioactive fuel, which prompted some American experts to recommend an evacuation to a radius of 50 miles. And that pool was not loaded nearly as heavily as pools at similar reactors in the United States.
    In a study to be released on Tuesday, engineers and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology therefore suggest that “the entire spent-fuel management system — on-site storage, consolidated long-term storage, geological disposal — is likely to be re-evaluated in a new light because of the Fukushima storage-pool experience.”

  14. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the nuclear industry is to find a way to deal with the highly radioactive waste that reactors produce. One idea is to bury it but that raises the question of what would happen to this waste over the millions of years during which it remains toxic.

    The Oklo reactors were a natural test of this question. So US scientist, in particular, began a program to measure the way in which different fission products migrated away from the reactor zones. “One of the most important, and surprising, early findings was that uranium and most of the rare earth elements did not experience significant mobilization in the past two billion years,” say Davis and co. “Because the wastes were contained successfully in Oklo, it appears not unrealistic to hope that long term disposal in specially selected and engineered geological repositories can be successful.”

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