What To Do With Used Nuclear Fuel

The Department of Energy released a report, “Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste.”  It details the Obama administration’s plans for dealing with a continuing problem.

The Department of Energy released a report, “Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste.”  It details the Obama administration’s plans for dealing with a continuing problem.

The problem is largely political, however, so it is not clear that this strategy will work any better than previous strategies. There is one provision, consent-based siting of repositories, that could make a big difference.

Another difference, probably smaller, is that, in addition to used fuel from civilian reactors, the report mentions used fuel and other wastes from nuclear weapons production and nuclear submarines, along with uranium and plutonium from weapons taken out of service as being destined for disposal in a repository. The current policy is that military wastes are dealt separately from civilian wastes. While the report does not say anything about combining the two, mentioning these wastes implies that that possibility may be considered. That would make sense, because all of these eventually need storage in a geologic repository.

The report recommends “a waste management system containing a pilot interim storage facility; a larger, full-scale interim storage facility; and a geologic repository” to be built over the next few decades. It also recommends a new organization to manage these projects and interface with the utilities that need to dispose of used fuel, the form of that organization unspecified. There is good reason for that; there has been such an organization, and it was unable to do its job. Shaping a new organization will require negotiating with Congress, the single largest factor in that inability.

The siting of a geological repository has been a fight in the United States for several decades. Yucca Mountain was mothballed because people in Nevada didn’t want it. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, was welcomed by the local community. Sweden, the UK, and Finland are all building repositories in places where the locals want them.

Times have changed from when the government could decide on where to site ammunition factories, plutonium production plants, and other facilities that generated jobs but had liabilities associated with them without consulting the local community. When the repository process began, such decisions were possible. But the process took a very long time, with much more input from Congress than originally planned.

Five sites were selected for investigation on the basis of their geological characteristics. The plan was to choose the best site scientifically. Two sites were in the populous East, three in the West. As the time drew near to select a site, Congress withdrew the Eastern sites, for reasons of votes, not science. And then they just said, the site will be in Nevada, dammit. That soured Nevadans on the process and site, and they have objected, resulting in the closing of the Yucca Mountain site, which was almost ready to start accepting waste.

Congress and presidential administrations also kept changing the rules for the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, the organization that has been responsible for finding a repository and moving used fuel from the reactors. Some of the history and legislation can be found here, here, and here. It’s not a simple story, but the moral is that Congress can interfere with the process.

Whoever wrote this sentence into the report was probably aware of this history:

Whatever form the new organization takes, organizational stability, leadership continuity, oversight and accountability, and public credibility are critical attributes for future success. 

Such wishes have been expressed for many scientific undertakings of the government. When Congress voted on yearly budgets, these attributes were difficult to attain. Congress has run the budget on continuing resolutions since 2007, a much more difficult way for government agencies to operate.

One of the possibilities for used reactor fuel (also called spent fuel*) has always been processing to remove the unfissioned uranium and the plutonium produced by neutron capture for further use in reactors. Processes developed during the Manhattan Project for recovery of weapons plutonium could be used for this purpose. This has been called reprocessing and now is called recycling.*

Recycling will work best with fast reactors in what the report refers to as advanced fuel cycles. France, Japan, and Russia use recycling, but current methods have not advanced much beyond what was done for weapons plutonium recovery. Those methods produce large volumes of highly radioactive waste for which some improvements are said to have been introduced, although my questions to Areva on the subject have gone unanswered.

Newer methods of recycling, particularly pyroprocessing, which does not use the volumes of solvents currently used, are not fully developed. The current fuel cycle, without recycling, will likely continue for a few more decades, as the report notes.

The fact that the report was issued can help to move away from the current stalemate on used fuel, now mainly being stored at the reactors. Central storage locations will be safer and more secure. Let us hope that Congress is willing to move forward.


* The older terms spent fuel and reprocessing are being replaced with used fuel and recycling, which are used in this report. The latter two have been the preference of the nuclear industry to avoid the bad associations that have grown up around the older two. It may be a good idea to put old arguments in the past, but some will see the usage as a small victory for the nuclear industry. 




Image: Inside Yucca Mountain

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DanielPAldrichDaniel P. Aldrich
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tim_nuTim Nuoffer
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