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Nuclear fuel reprocessing: A cure that’s worse than the disease?

POSTED 28 FEBRUARY 2008


Basket of waste questions
For 30 years, as some nations reprocessed their spent nuclear fuel, the U.S. nuclear-waste strategy focused on a "geologic repository;" an underground wastebasket designed to prevent proliferation and environmental contamination for up to 1 million years.

Brown and desolate overview of Yucca Mountain and surrounding lands.
Aerial view of Yucca Mountain, Nev., site of national repository. Photo: Nuclear Energy Institute

In 1987, Congress chose Nevada for a single national storehouse for spent civilian fuel, even though the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act had called for a second repository in the eastern United States. Yucca was supposed to start accepting spent fuel rods in 1998, but hasn't yet, and the schedule continues to slip. Indeed, by the time Yucca does open (the optimistic predictions say in 2018), the national spent-fuel stockpile will already exceed Yucca's design capacity of 70,000 tons.

In other words, a second waste site will be needed even before the first one opens its doors. But beyond civilian spent fuel, the overall radwaste problem also includes low-level waste and an ocean of high-level liquid waste left over from making 30,000+ nuclear bombs.

Nuclear waste -- spent fuel generated per year
Graph compares current and projected levels of nuclear waste production across the globe, North America leads the pack by far.
Spent fuel is not just a problem in the United States. Europe is also struggling with the problem. Graph by Emmanuelle Bournay, UNEnvironment Program

Mountain of trouble
About $9-billion into the Yucca project, the storage site remains the focus of a labyrinth of technical, economic and political questions. Here's a small sample:

Technical: Can Yucca contain the radiation? How long before the cans holding the waste start to leak, and how soon will the radiation reach the environment?

Economic: Nuclear utilities (and their customers) have already paid the Department of Energy $27 billion to finance the Nevada dump, which was supposed to start taking waste in 1998. The utilities have begun winning lawsuits, claiming that they are paying to store waste that is now the fed's responsibility. These suits could eventually cost the feds double-digit billions (see #1 in the bibliography).

Political: Plenty of Silver Staters resent having a dump dumped on what was a weak, under-populated state, in a location already despoiled by nuclear explosions at the Nevada test site, site of Yucca Mountain. One vocal local, Harry Reid, happens to be Senate Majority Leader.

Can the canisters contain?
A lot of thought and expense has gone into designing the canisters that will hold waste at Yucca, but "eventually they will breach," says radiochemist Burns of Notre Dame. "The canisters are certain to fail, it's only a matter of how long. In 100 years? No. Maybe in 1,000. It's pretty much certain at 10,000 or 100,000 years." An earthquake, volcanic activity or a human intrusion could throw the release schedule out the window, he adds.

Yucca was chosen because it's remote and dry, but studies have found that it has an oxidizing environment, Burns says. "The big problem is that as soon as the canisters breach, the fuel starts to oxidize and release radioactivity in the groundwater. The bottom line is that no geologic environment is so sufficiently stable, and no canister design so robust, that you would expect it to last forever."

Textured map of Utah, small, square section near California border is highlighted in green.
Yucca Mountain, where a radwaste repository is under construction, is inside the National Test Site, where about 1,000 atomic bombs were tested between 1951 and 1992. Graphic: Nuclear Energy Institute

These thoughts lead Burns to favor matching waste and repository for maximum stability. "Imagine we adopt reprocessing, and create two or three types of waste forms [such as glass or zeolite] to handle waste that can't be recycled," then build several geological repositories with chemical conditions suited to each type of waste. "We would get the best waste form for the environment," Burns says. "Yucca would be great for borosilicate [glass], but not for spent fuel. I imagine deep granite, an anoxic, reducing environment, would be great. The nuclear fuel would be an order of magnitude more stable, less soluble."

That approach might work in the long run, but waste continues to pile up in the short run. Each civilian nuclear power reactor in the United States has a giant swimming pool full of hot fuel rods -- and many reactor operators have already exceeded their original design capacity. These pools could be an irresistible draw to terrorists, who might be able to start a radiation-spewing fire by draining the pool or shutting off the cooling-water pump.

Deep, glowing and otherworldly pool of water surrounds barrels full of toxic waste
The interim storage pool at the French reprocessing plant, which opened in 1990. Photo: Areva

Waste not, want not?
This year, as the Department of Energy prepares to finally apply for a license for its Yucca dump, fuel that can't fit the overloaded swimming pools at nuclear reactors is being moved to "dry casks," air-cooled steel containers that require monitoring and protection against wackos, but need neither the water nor the pumps used in cooling ponds.

Dry casks are "now clearly the method of choice," says Ahearn, the former nuclear regulator. "To build another swimming pool for a reactor is a whole messy licensing process, and companies have realized that dry casks are safe and economical; that's the trend."

Some skeptics who question whether Yucca Mountain can or should be opened say that consolidating the casks would make them easier to guard. A 50- to 100-year cooling-off period would allow the development of better waste-disposal technology.

Chart shows ten nations and levels of nuclear power use-the US leads by a lot
Nuclear Energy Institute

While we've highlighted a thorny dispute about the wisdom of reprocessing, our experts were unanimous on this: With or without reprocessing, geologic storage will always be needed for high-level radioactive waste that must be isolated indefinitely from the environment and sociopaths.

Rather than fading away, the need for radwaste storage grows more acute. In the United States, an estimated 55,000 tons of civilian spent fuel await entombment, and 103 operating reactors are producing another 2,000 tons of spent fuel each year.

Graph shows heavy building of nuclear reactors in early 70s, demonstrates comparatively little growth of industry today
Reactor construction peaked during the 1970s, but a resurgence is now under way around the world -- including the United States. Graph by Philippe Rekacewicz, UNEP/GRID-Arenda, UNEnvironment Program

While the United States awaits applications for more new reactors, the international picture shows rapid growth, according to Germany's Der Spiegel: "Currently there are 435 atomic reactors generating electricity in 31 countries across the globe. They fill 6.5 percent of the world's total energy demand and use close to 70,000 tons of enriched uranium per year [about one Yucca Mountain worth of waste per year, in other words] ... At present, 29 nuclear power plants are under construction and there are concrete plans to build another 64. Another 158 are under consideration" (see #2 in the bibliography).

Get reactive with our radwaste bibliography.

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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