Steve Kidd, head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, has written an informative article for Nuclear Engineering International (not to be confused with a different nuclear related entity called NEI) titled Evolving international pacts for tomorrow about a number of different aspects of international cooperation in nuclear power developments.
It is really heartening to me how many times recently I have read articles that acknowledge the energy value represented by slightly used fuel and talking about the viability of programs to recycle that fuel.
The following comment in the article is worth a special note in light of something that I learned while reading Gwyneth Cravens’s Power to Save the World.
Indeed, the continued delays at the Yucca Mountain waste repository project suggest that the closed fuel cycle provisions of GNEP are needed more than ever. This is the most controversial element and has been the point at which the US government has not granted all the requested funding. Yet some money has been provided to continue work on advanced reprocessing technologies, aiming to reduce volumes of high-level wastes and simplify their disposal, while the MOX fuel fabrication facility at Savannah River is now under construction. This does not, however, mean that waste repositories such as Yucca Mountain will never be needed – they must still be planned for and developed, but the quantities of material destined for them will be much reduced.
Frequent Atomic Insights readers will know that I have been talking about Yucca Mountain as a waste of money for a number of years, dating back to an article that I wrote in 1996 titled Opposition to Yucca Mountain: Not Irrational. From Power to Save the World I learned that the US already has an operating, licensed repository called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) that can store every bit of whatever is left over from recycling, even if we use it for many decades or even centuries. Here is a excerpt from that book:
Thinking about how unhappy the state of Nevada was about Yucca Mountain, I (Cravens) asked, “Could commercial spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste ever be stored at WIPP?”
(Rip Anderson, a specialist in probabilistic safety analysis)“The original plan was to house the whole inventory of military and commercial spent fuel in a single repository,” Rip replied. “By the time WIPP began, the idea was that as a defense-related facility it would take spent fuel from the military branch of DOE. We also did a heck of a lot of work on salt for high-level waste. Heaters were run for a long time in salt beds to see if the thermal energy from the spent fuel would e a problem. It wasn’t. Salt conducts the heat away. Technically, there’s absolutely no reason why spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste could not be stored in salt. That was what the National Academy of Sciences recommended. But first WIPP has to establish a track record of safety with military transuranic waste, because politically the idea of bringing spent fuel into the state is too much of a lighting rod. Spent nuclear fuel could go into monitored, interim storage here and be retrieved later for reprocessing.”
. . .
“From a technical point of view, the best place on dry land to store all nuclear waste – wherever it comes from – is at WIPP. We’ve proven that every way you can think of. We have traceability and transparency. Geologically and hydrologically, it’s the safest. There’s room for it, and more panels can be mined out of the salt bed whenever we want. It’s only politics and bureaucracy that stand in the way. So far, no one has made any public statements about putting commercial waste here. My gut feeling is that after the initial shock, the state of New Mexico would find it quite acceptable if paid appropriately.”
(Power to Save the World P. 339-40)
I also learned that it currently costs about $180 million per year to operate WIPP, which is receiving a large number of shipments from the defense related nuclear site clean-ups that are in progress. The federal government currently collects about $780 million per year from utilities operating nuclear power plants as a result of the 1 mill per kilowatt hour charge for waste disposal. It seems logical to assume that any increases in the operating costs for WIPP could be paid by that fee, especially if we simply stop spending (wasting) money on Yucca Mountain.