Researcher urges nuclear waste options

Aug 18, 2006

The Bush administration is eagerly pushing nuclear power as a way to help solve the U.S. energy crisis. But in its new plan for nuclear waste management, the administration is taking the wrong approach, says an MIT professor who studies the nuclear energy industry.

"My hope is that over time, the administration will rethink its priorities in this area," says Richard Lester, professor of nuclear engineering and director of the Industrial Performance Center.

In a recent article published in Issues in Science and Technology, Lester argued that the Bush administration's plan, known as GNEP (Global Nuclear Energy Partnership), is not the best way to encourage further development of nuclear energy.

GNEP, which President Bush announced earlier this year, is meant to stimulate the nuclear industry by coming up with better ways to manage spent nuclear fuel. The plan focuses on reprocessing spent fuel, but Lester believes the administration should focus on finding regional storage facilities for the nuclear waste.

Right now, uncertainty over how to deal with spent fuel, which remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, is one of the major obstacles to the construction of new plants. Thousands of spent fuel rods are now stored in secure pools or concrete casks located near nuclear plants, which is not considered a long-term solution.

The administration has been pushing a plan to move all of the nation's spent fuel to a repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but that facility is not scheduled to open until at least 2017. Many years and billions of dollars have gone into planning for the repository there, over the protests of Nevada residents, and success is still not assured. If the project fails, an alternative will be needed. And even if it succeeds, spent fuel will remain at nuclear power plants for decades before it can be removed.

Several nuclear energy companies have sued the federal government for failing to fulfill its contractual obligation to remove spent nuclear fuel from their plants. That failure does not bode well for construction of new plants, Lester said.

"If electric power companies can't believe the government is going to fulfill its obligations, it's going to be a real deterrent for them to go ahead with new power plants," he said.

In the meantime, the Bush plan calls for developing new technology to reprocess spent fuel to recover usable plutonium and uranium and eliminate other long-lived radioactive elements known as actinides. But according to Lester, the government's efforts would be better focused on other solutions, such as establishing a small number of regional facilities, where nuclear plants could send their spent fuel to be stored safely for several decades.

GNEP does not address the utilities' spent fuel storage problem. Instead, it "is being sold as a technical fix for three other problems," Lester said, but "each of these problems is either not as serious as the administration suggests or could be solved in a different way that is less costly and less risky."

Those perceived problems are lack of space at Yucca Mountain; the long life of radioactive material; and a potential shortage of uranium.

Yucca Mountain, a ridgeline geological formation about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has already been tunneled in preparation for waste storage. When Congress approved the Yucca Mountain site, it put a 70,000-metric-ton limit on the amount of waste that could be stored there, but there is room for much more if Congress wants to raise the limit, Lester said.

Any effort to remove the long-lived radioactivity from the waste would require construction of reprocessing plants, special "burner" reactors and other nuclear facilities, which would be costly and difficult to site. And even if these plants were successfully built, it would be nearly impossible to eliminate all of the long-lived radioisotopes in the waste, Lester says.

"When you really look at the technical feasibility of reducing the toxic lifetime of waste, it has less potential than the administration is claiming, and the costs and shorter-term risks of doing it are significant," he said. Moreover, according to Lester, there are other, less costly ways to reduce the long-term risks of nuclear waste disposal that the administration has ignored.

Supporters of GNEP also say that reprocessing spent fuel could be necessary in the future if uranium becomes scarce, but according to the 2003 MIT report, "The Future of Nuclear Power," there is enough uranium to last for several decades, even if many new nuclear plants are built.

Lester said he is not opposed to research on new fuel cycle technologies, but he argues that reprocessing will not be needed for several decades, if then, and that to spend billions of dollars over the next few years on demonstrating reprocessing and related technologies, as the administration is proposing, would not be a wise use of resources.

Source: MIT

Explore further: Best of Last Week–Variance of gravitational constant, 50 years of Moore's Law and creating the sensation of invisibility

Related Stories

S. Korea, US strike new civil nuclear deal

Apr 22, 2015

South Korea and the United States agreed a new nuclear cooperation pact Wednesday that stopped short of granting Seoul the permission it had sought to start reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

Bury nuclear waste down a very deep hole, say UK scientists

Apr 14, 2015

Scientists at the University of Sheffield calculate that all of the UK's high level nuclear waste from spent fuel reprocessing could be disposed of in just six boreholes 5km deep, fitting within a site no larger than a football ...

Getting a critical edge on plutonium identification

Mar 24, 2015

A collaboration between NIST scientists and colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has resulted in a new kind of sensor that can be used to investigate the telltale isotopic composition of plutonium ...

The revolutionary ion engine that took spacecraft to Ceres

Mar 09, 2015

The NASA spacecraft Dawn has spent more than seven years travelling across the Solar System to intercept the asteroid Vesta and the dwarf planet Ceres. Now in orbit around Ceres, the probe has returned the first images and data from these dist ...

Recommended for you

Report details benefits of investment in basic research

Apr 27, 2015

Last year was a notable one for scientific achievements: In 2014, European researchers discovered a fundamental new particle that sheds light on the origins of the universe, and the European Space Agency ...

Heinz Awards honors six for solving critical human issues

Apr 23, 2015

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who has developed artificial human "microlivers" that can safely test the toxicity of drugs without endangering lives is one of six people chosen to receive Heinz Awards.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.