No US politician ever lost an election by opposing a nuclear waste dump. That’s why the latest report on from a US Department of Energy commission will end up in the same garbage can as the proposal to build a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
The latest idea is to build one or more above ground storage facilities made of enough concrete and steel to resist a potential terrorist attack and to store the spent fuel safely for decades. Courts have ruled that the law establishing Yucca Mountain required the DoE to show that the spent fuel could be safely stored there for a million years. The best the department could do was 10,000 years. A million years, then 10,000 years, now about 120 years. What happens after that is anybody’s guess and somebody else’s problem.
The political beauty of this solution is that it kicks the can down the road a really long ways. It also prevents the DoE and the Congress from having to consider doing things differently.
In the US, almost all spent nuclear fuel is stored in casks above ground out or in cooling ponds at the reactor sites. There are 104 operating nuclear reactors in the US and more than 100 waste disposal sites. The cooling ponds are similar to the ponds that began leaking and then overheating at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.
France, which generates about 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, and Japan and the UK all recycle and reprocess most of their spent nuclear fuel. Reprocessing is not illegal in the US, but there is no nuclear reprocessing plant in the US because it was deemed cheaper and cleaner years ago to use only new fuel rods in US reactors. It’s probably still cheaper to use new uranium.
A new reactor design could also make a difference. TerraPower LLC is working on traveling wave reactor that could use a small amount of low-enriched uranium to start up and then be fueled with depleted uranium, which is a by-product of the standard enrichment process. The company claims its reactors could run for decades on the depleted uranium, dramatically reducing the amount of nuclear waste.
There are about 700,000 metric tons of this low-level nuclear material lying around in the US, and TerraPower claims that a mere 8 metric tons could generate 25 million megawatts annually. The company’s original backers included Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft, and now include venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, a founder of Sun Microsystems and the driving force behind Kior Inc., a biofuels company that recently filed for an IPO.
Any of these solutions, though, will take time. Even if Yucca Mountain had been approved construction would have taken about 10 years. Building above ground storage, as the DoE commission recommends, would take about as long. So would designing and building the TerraPower reactor, with commercial development about 15 years off.
In the wake of the disaster in Japan, no plan to do anything about nuclear power in the US is likely to find support. If anything, most of the support will be for shutting the existing plants down as their licenses expire. How the US will replace that about 20% of total US generation is an unanswered question. Solar or wind or geothermal or something else or all combined are not likely to meet the demand.