Spent nuclear waste: Solutions needed

The problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel is a typical example of the government “kicking the can down the road”. The U.S. has built and operated over a hundred nuclear power plants, all of which store their spent fuel under conditions considered as “safe”, though waiting for an eventual decision of what do do with this dangerous material. At one time, the government decided it should all be shipped to a buried site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but this option has been dropped due to fierce opposition by Senator Harry Reid and the fact that the site is no longer large enough to house the growing mountain of spent fuel.

But time doesn’t stand still and so there are new developments. The Fukushima disaster showed how dangerous it is to stole spent fuel near a reactor site – some of the spent fuel apparently did cause part of the serious radiation problem caused by explosions following the tsunami that put the plant out of naction and caused a total power failure.

And now the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has halted any further nuclear licensing until the U.S. finds an acceptable nuclear waste dump. Nine new licenses were temporarily suspended because the commission finally decided  that the so-called Waste Confidence Decision, which has been used to allow licensing “because there was confidence that a long term solution will be found” is no longer a satisfactory answer to continue a flawed policy.

France, which has banked on nuclear power for much of its energy needs is far advanced in dealing with the nuclear waste problem, though some experts believe its approach is controversial and potentially very dangerous. Areva, France’s majority state-owned complex of nuclear companies has been reprocessing spent fuel in a dedicated facility in Souteastern France, where plutonium is separated, mixed with enriched uranium, and sent back as a nuclear fuel. Germany, Finland, Japan and other countries send part of their waste fuel there as well. What is left is a highly radioactive, concentrated waste. Areva plans to store this eventually under a deep rock formation in Northeast France where studies hve been made for a number of years to prove, if possible, that this is a very long term solution to the problem. It is slated to go into operation in ten years or so after continuing studies.

For the U.S. the issues as as follows. Firstly, should nuclear waste be reprocessed? There are two good reasons to do this, in adition to increasing safety at our nuclear plants. The waste fuel contains most of the original energy, making nuclear power much more efficient. Secondly, a large number of jobs will be created. Several states (e.g. South Caroline, have shown interest in having a reprocessing center located there). But this course has long been opposed because of the potential danger of shipping nuclear materials around the country, including the threat of capture of plutonium and enriched uranium by terrorists.

Whether we want to reprocess fuel or not, we need to find a location to store the spent fuel on a permanent basis. With Yucca Flats apparently out, are there other locations. Can any location guarantee to be safe until the end of the world? That’s very doubtful. But we need to make some decisions.

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