BRC Offers Strategy for Today’s Nuclear Waste, Is Deadlocked on Tomorrow’s
The big thing the Blue Ribbon Commission was able to agree on, including the pro and anti nuclear members, is that our existing stock of spent nuclear fuel will require a geological disposal facility (maybe for direct disposal, maybe for post-recycling waste). With that, they were able to produce a seven pronged strategy for making it happen.
- A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities.
- A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed.
- Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management.
- Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.
- Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated interim storage facilities.
- Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development.
- Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, nonproliferation, and security concerns.
What they weren’t able to agree on was the question of using an open versus a closed fuel cycle in the future, in other words, whether or not the era of nuclear power should end when the cheap uranium runs out (possibly sometime this century). The compromise they worked out, was to agree that no decision was needed just yet, and in particular, they thought we should not “commit irreversibly” to one path (i.e. the first repository should offer “retrievability” of waste for some period of time).
Surprisingly, the committee was not asked to “Offered a judgment about the appropriate role of nuclear power in the nation’s (or the world’s) future energy supply mix.” This had the side-effect of allowing the committee to produce a rather one-sided document, which lists the scary hazards of nuclear waste, without really explaining (or even admitting) that nuclear power is enormously safer than fossil fuel. They did build a compelling case for a speedy resolution to the waste impasse, for the purpose of not burdening future generations with our problems.
Disappointingly, the Reactor and Fuel Cycle Technology (RFCT) subcommittee didn’t find much reason to like nuclear recycling technology (with today’s light water reactors, it provides a 19% reduction in ore use but no major change in the waste repository space requirement).
The RFCT subcommittee was luke-warm toward recycling with fast reactors too. They described them as “sustainable for centuries” without directly refuting the convincing claims by proponents that they are sustainable for millions of years (the document generally says very little about sustainability). They also cite questionable economics and need for more R&D.
However, the RFCT subcommittee was impressed with the high temperature reactor currently under development, for its potential to reduce fossil fuel use for industrial process heat and hydrogen production, with the resulting benefits for energy security and CO2 reductions. The high temperature reactor is a research area for one of the subcommittee co-chairs, Dr. Per Peterson.
Their recommendation for consolidated interim storage facilities also advances both pro and anti- nuclear causes. These facilities will be much cheaper and faster to develop than permanent repositories. Also, since interim storage time lets the waste cool, less space in the final repository will be required. As a result, they are the fastest, best way to accommodate either: a surge in nuclear power plant decommissioning, or a surge in new plant construction.
Rapid deployment of an interim storage facility is expected to save quite a bit of money too. Apparently, there are (or soon will be) some decommissioned nuclear plants on valuable real estate, that could be put back to good use if it weren’t for the nuclear waste sitting there collecting dust while under the watchful eyes of highly paid security guards. The ominous example chosen by the commission is $350M-550M to guard the waste at all of the roughly 70 US nuclear plants, were they to be shutdown and decommissioned today.
Quite a bit of the document focuses on avoiding a repeat of the public relations disaster that is Yucca Mountain. This history is contrasted with the successful WIPP repository, which has been operating for 12 year in New Mexico. Hopefully the committee’s insights will empower voters to prevent the government from repeating the same mistakes again.
Overall, the committee has made an important contribution to resolution the nuclear waste stalemate with this document, which is thorough in this particular area. It’s just a pity that they didn’t more broadly address “America’s Nuclear Future”.
Nathan Wilson has a bachelor's and a master's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University, and currently works as a software engineer in the aerospace industry. He is excited about clean energy, and hopes to bring technical scrutiny and an engineer's pragmatism to the clean energy discussion.
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