Nuclear waste requires cradle-to-grave strategy

July 1, 2011

After Fukushima, it is now imperative to redefine what makes a successful nuclear power program - from cradle to grave. If nuclear waste management is not thought out from the beginning, the public in many countries will reject nuclear power as an energy choice, according to research that appears today in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

According to Allison Macfarlane, associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University, and a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, coming up with storage solutions for nuclear waste continues to be a last-minute decision in a number of countries besides Japan. It is surprisingly common for reactor sites to be overburdened with spent fuel with no clear disposal plan. In South Korea, for example, storage at the nation's four is filling up, leading to a potential storage crisis within the next decade.

The broke ground for the first of four nuclear reactors on March 14, 2011 but has not prioritized storage. Hans Blix, former head of the and current chairman of the UAE's International Advisory Board, noted: "The question of a final disposal plan is still open and more attention should be spent on deciding what to do."

Some very low level nuclear wastes can go into landfill-type settings. But low level wastes, composed of low concentrations of long-lived and higher concentrations of short-lived ones, must remain sequestered for a few hundred years in specially engineered subsurface facilities. Intermediate and high level wastes require disposal hundreds of meters below the ground for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years to ensure public safety. Intermediate wastes contain high concentrations of long-lived radionuclides, as do high level wastes, including spent nuclear fuel and fuel reprocessing wastes. As well as being extremely radioactive, high level wastes also emit heat. There is no repository for high level nuclear waste disposal anywhere in the world.

In all types of energy production, money is made at the front end of the process rather than in waste management at the back end. Macfarlane argues, however, that a failure to plan for waste disposal can cause the more profitable front end of the operation to collapse.

Nuclear fuel is discharged from a light water reactor after about four to six years in the core. Because the fuel is extremely thermally and radioactively hot at discharge, it must be cooled in a pool. Actively cooled with circulated borated water, spent fuel pools are about 40 feet (12 meters) deep. The water not only removes heat but also helps absorb neutrons and stops chain reactions. In a number of countries, including the United States, metal racks in spent fuel pools hold four times the originally intended amount of fuel. Plans to reprocess fuel have failed for both economic and policy reasons. This means that today there is more fuel in the pools than in reactor cores, and this fuel poses a large radiation risk in the event of a coolant-loss accident, such as occurred at Fukushima.

Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant has seven spent fuel pools, one at each reactor and a large shared pool, as well as dry cask storage for spent fuel on site. Initially, Japan had planned a short period of spent fuel storage at the reactor site prior to reprocessing, but Japan's reprocessing facility has suffered long delays (scheduled to open in 2007, the facility is still not ready). This has caused spent fuel to build up at the plant's reactor sites.

Countries should include additional spent fuel storage in their nuclear power plans from the start, rather than creating ad hoc solutions after spent fuel has already begun to build up. Siting storage is a technical issue, but, importantly, also a social and political one.

"Countries with nuclear power programs need a medium-term strategy for spent fuel storage prior to the long-term plan for spent fuel or high level waste disposal," Macfarlane explains. "Though difficult, the disposal of high level nuclear waste is possible and a clear strategy to develop a repository combines both technical and societal criteria in a phased approach."

After Fukushima, the nuclear industry and nuclear regulators must redefine a "successful" nuclear power program. Safe electricity production will not suffice – a program must be safe, secure, and sustainable for its entire lifecycle, from mining uranium ores to disposing of spent nuclear fuel. Failure to plan ahead for management will lead the public in many countries to reject nuclear as an energy choice.

Explore further: Researcher urges nuclear waste options

More information: It's 2050: Do you know where your nuclear waste is? by Allison Macfarlane appears in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 2011 issue. The article will be free to access for a limited period at:

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5 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2011
Forget that its just an spell-binding radioactive rag-doll

Why not just use the good old closed loop sodium bath technology that President 'Peanut' Carter banned by executive order -
It was only banned because it extended the fuel rods life by 20X Oh yes and because after the rods were spent they were entirely inert and safe to handle.
That way we wont have to buy into the current fat fraud and electricity for pennies really would be an option for all

5 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2011
Better yet, use Molten Salt Reactors, which forgoes fuel rods altogether and instead use liquid fuel, making the reactor meltdown-proof and safe from highly reactive sodium.

And while you're at it, use thorium instead of uranium, which is used completely instead of only max 0.7% of current fuels, resulting a lot less waste, and where 83% is safe after 10 years and the rest only needs 300 years to be back to background levels.
not rated yet Jul 01, 2011
How about "Where is your coal waste in 2011" as a comparison study? The Tennessee coal ash spill of January 9 2009 springs to mind, as does Ohio, October 21 2000; search on "coal ash spill" for more. And of course the CO2 just gets dumped into the atmosphere.
not rated yet Jul 02, 2011
Problems with Thorium. See World Nuclear Association Page on Thorium and scroll down to the Problems....seem to outweigh the positives. And this comes from industry people.
I am totally against nuclear energy, no matter what spin you put on it, what name you give it and where you decide to dump the waste, how much, what color it is....STOP the Madness. After 70 years of failures, this industry is dying and killing. It scares the dickens right out of me. Fukushima has changed everything. We have new clear vision not NU clear.
not rated yet Jul 02, 2011
You seem to have missed the most impart part of the problems section.

The technical problems (not yet satisfactorily solved) in reprocessing solid fuels. However, with some designs, in particular the molten salt reactor (MSR), these problems are likely to largely disappear.

And as you can see above, I was talking about MSR.
Reprocessing the fuel is indeed a problem for solid fueled reactors. But in a MSR like "Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor", everything is done as a liquid.
Since everything loves to bind as a fluoride, it is easy to separate and reprocess the fuel, which can be done continuously. Same with refueling.

However, you're obviously not going to listen to anything that I say anyway, since you're so dead-set that everything nuclear is bad.
Am I also right that you're of the mindset that no amount of radiation is safe?

And you say that the industry is killing? Only 68 have died as a direct result, while 4000 extra cancer deaths will appear according to IAEA.
not rated yet Jul 03, 2011
STOP the Madness. After 70 years of failures, this industry is dying and killing.

In terms of deaths per TWh nuclear is the safest source of energy. Dirty, dangerous fossil fuels and biomass energy kill indiscriminately through particulate pollution; without any kind of accident. In the united states alone dirt burners kill 30 000 people per year; in Germany, thanks to high population density, dirt burners kill 60 000 people per year; that's an Auswitch-birkenau death camp every decade and a half. That's a chernobyl every few weeks.

If you were actually serious and not just blowing smoke out of your ignorant arse you wouldn't consider shutting down a nuclear plant before every dirt burner supplying that grid is gone.
not rated yet Jul 03, 2011
i am also anti-fission, but it is alot better than coal, which also produces radiation and is much more polluting at that, so for now it is a lot better than the alternatives.
The problem is the maintaining of the reactor.. i believe there should be a gov organization that monitors the reactors firmly.

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