I am one of the biggest nuclear technology fans I know, but I have to express my strong disappointment in the people who are making decisions for the nuclear industry. They are tone deaf when it comes to politics and marketing. We are on the cusp of a tremendous opportunity to take the initiative and frame discussions about our incredible technology in a positive light as a planet saving silver bullet. Instead of seizing that chance, people like Alex Flint, Marvin Fertel, and Samuel Bodman have decided to expend political capital to defend a stupid, 25 year old decision to transport used nuclear materials to the most inaccessible location possible.
The President-elect, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House have all stated that they do not like the idea of forcing Nevada to accept shipments of used nuclear fuel. I think it is pretty clear that there is not a chance in hell that they will suddenly change their minds and make it easy to proceed with that project.
The EPA has established acceptance criteria that are nearly impossible to meet, the NRC has offered no fast track through its lengthy review process, and there is still a large amount of infrastructure that still would have to be constructed before Yucca could begin accepting waste. In other words, there is still a lot of opportunity for people opposed to nuclear power to use Yucca as an industry constipation weapon if it is still the chosen long term solution.
Our current method of temporary storage works fine, is safe and costs just a few percent of the value of the power produced. It can work for the indefinite future. If there are dry storage casks that deteriorate in a century or so, all the people who responsible need to do is to repair or replace the cask. It is just plain crazy for us to allow those who are fundamentally opposed to allowing nuclear power to compete in the energy marketplace to set the agenda and tell us we need to come up with a solution that works for a million years without any human intervention. It is like telling an architect or a construction engineer that they need to design buildings to last forever without a maintenance crew or an occasional refurbishing.
The only places where there is legitimate concern that the current policy is adding a significant burden is those few places where there is used fuel stored on a site that no longer has an operating reactor plant. In those cases, the current fuel custodian – federal law currently prevents real ownership of used fuel – must pay annual licensing, security and maintenance costs without having any income generation to cover the costs. However, it is self-destructive for any nuclear advocates to get behind partisan efforts to use an insistence on Yucca Mountain as a “forcing function” that makes the government “do something”, especially when those efforts revert to using an irrational fear of radiation to inspire action.
I have three possible solutions, but there may be others.
- Move the used fuel to a site where there are still operating plants and other used fuel to monitor.
- Allow independent operators to build and operate used fuel storage sites in locations convenient to several plants.
- Build a new plant on the former power plant site. Presumably, there are good reasons why it was a power plant site in the first place.
Of course, in all cases, my eventual solution is that the used fuel should be recycled. The actinides can become new fuel and the fission products can serve other uses that take advantage of their unique properties. With concepts like the IFR, the LFTR (Liftr) and some ideas that are associated with TRISO based fuels, the energy value of used fuel alone is in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
There is no rush to recycle, however. The industrial process gets easier the longer the fuel rests after use, and there is still plenty of uranium to fuel all current and near term reactors. Some advocates of advanced reactors and their recycling capabilities get really enthused about the fact that acceptance of their technology would mean that we would never need to mine any more uranium – but why is that a goal? Uranium mining is no more damaging than any other kind of mining; it is a safe, profitable job generator in places that may have few other opportunities – like Namibia and Kazakhstan. It is also a good source of income in friendly countries like Canada and Australia and could be a growth industry in several places in the US.
Nuclear industry leaders – you have to “know when to fold ’em”. Stubborn adherence to a failed course of action is a dumb way to lead – just take a look at our current world and national military and economic situation.
Yucca is a bad deal. If it was only your own political capital that you were spending I would not be so passionate, but your silly defense of a failed idea is giving too much ammunition to people who hate my favorite technology. You are giving up what I believe is a golden opportunity to show the world that we have a solution that provides for a much brighter future than either continued dependence on fossil fuels or a shift to the weak, diffuse, expensive power sources that the fossil fuel pushers like to portray as the only alternatives to the useful power that their product provides.
Final thoughts: Back in my formative years, I had to memorize the following career guidance:
Take heed what you say of your seniors,
be your words spoken softly or plain,
lest a bird of the air tell the matter,
and so shall yee hear it again.
(Verse from The Laws of the Navy)
Just in case the wording is obscure to you because of a difference in cultural background, the verse is part of a poem aimed at teaching rising young officers not to criticize higher ranking officers, even in private. As we all know, such behavior can come around and cause negative professional consequences. (Truth be told, I never really took this advice. Perhaps that is part of the reason why I wear a silver oak leaf while some of my classmates wear stars.)