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Closing the Gaping Hole in the Nuclear-fuel Cycle

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The nuclear fuel cycle

Nuclear power has been making headlines recently, largely due to the earthquake and tsunami that triggered hydrogen explosions, the melting of nuclear fuel rods and releases of radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. It has also featured in the news because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is slated to approve the country’s first new nuclear reactor in decades –Westinghouse’s AP1000 pressurized water reactor – in the early days of 2012.

As the world continues to scrutinize the safety, financials and environmental aspects of nuclear energy, the practice of storing spent nuclear fuel at plant sites across the U.S. remains a pressing problem. It’s particularly urgent since many of the temporary containment sites are nearing capacity.

In this light, the Georgia Institute of Technology hosted a symposium on Sustainable Nuclear Fuel Management to discuss possibilities and challenges to managing the approximate 75,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at temporary sites across many states. Each year, an additional 2,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel is produced by the country’s 104 reactors.

“The Achilles heal of nuclear power is the backend of the fuel cycle,” said Farzad Rahnema, Professor of the Nuclear and Radiological Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, opening the conference.

So what’s to be done? Even though the pathway remains unchartered, a few key ideas surfaced from the meeting.

First, nuclear waste policy isn’t working. The Blue Ribbon Commission’s report on America’s Nuclear Future, published in July, supports this idea, explained Professor Per Peterson, Nuclear Engineering Department, U.C. Berkeley. The report reveals that while the U.S. has the capability to manage nuclear waste, the correct policy framework is not in place.

One part of the solution, continued Peterson, is to alter the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), nuclear waste’s overarching rubric. Why? Because, in 1987 the NWPA was amended to designate Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the nation’s only option for a permanent high-level nuclear waste storehouse. However, the Obama administration stopped the development of the controversial repository, leaving the U.S. without a lasting storage site for its mounting nuclear waste.

Additionally, managing waste requires cash – stacks of it. The NWPA’s Nuclear Waste Fund – created for the removal and disposal of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plant sites – currently has $25 billion in unused funds. And each year it collects more than $700 million from utility ratepayers. Yet, the NWPA only permits the money to be be used for the licensing and development of a permanent repository, like the canceled Yucca Mountain, and can’t be spent on interim storage facilities. And so the funds remain virtually inaccessible.

This means that the hunt for a new, permanent deep geologic disposal facility needs to begin. It’s an obligatory step even if Yucca Mountain were to open today, since the country’s supply of spent nuclear fuel will in the near future surpass the amount that is authorized until an additional long-term storage site is operating.

Another idea to emerge from the symposium is that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel has numerous benefits, including consuming accumulated nuclear waste, diminishing demand for new uranium fuel, and helping prevent nuclear terrorism. That’s according to Paul Murray, an engineer for the French nuclear power company Areva, who outlined his company’s hope to build a nuclear reprocessing plant in the U.S. with a price tag of $25 billion.

Murray warned that the ” biggest proliferation risk is used nuclear fuel.” Initially, spent nuclear fuel is “self-protecting” due to its high radioactivity, making it very dangerous to manipulate. Spent fuel rods lose their radioactivity over time. This makes it easier for saboteurs to get their hands on it. “Some of the oldest fuel in the US is no longer self-protecting,” said Murray.

Finally, participants discussed the need to improve national and international emergency response systems for dealing with nuclear power plant accidents.

“We must never confuse the probability of an outcome with the outcome itself,” said James Ellis Jr., president and CEO of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, who urged the nuclear industry to create a “coalition of the willing” that uses the Fukushima disaster as motivation for increasing safety practices at nuclear power plants across the country.

Robynne Boyd About the Author: Robynne Boyd began writing about people and the planet when living barefoot and by campfire on the North Shore of Kauai, Hawaii. Over a decade later and now fully dependent on electricity, she continues this work as an editor for IISD Reporting Services. When not in search of misplaced commas and terser prose, Robynne writes about environment and energy. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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