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The Future of Nuclear Waste in the US

The issue of nuclear waste has been a hotbed of contention by many senators and policy makers a-like for many years. Recently four senators have proposed legislation that will enforce some of the recommendations made by President Barack Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.  The recommendations proposed by the legislation will be seen below.

The first recommendation is the formation of a new government agency outside of the Department of Energy. The specific legislation labelled this new agency as the Nuclear Waste Administration. The proposed legislation will give the Nuclear Waste Administration control of the Nuclear Waste Fund. The Nuclear Waste Fund is a tax payer supplemented fund that is charged per use of nuclear power. This fund is for the disposal of commercial nuclear waste. Furthermore, the proposed Nuclear Waste Administration would get supplemented for dealing with nuclear waste from defense agencies.

The second recommendation proposed by the legislation will provide a means of separating commercial nuclear waste from defense waste. This has long been a major issue with the past large scale storage solution, Yucca Mountain.

The legislation proposes that the Nuclear Waste Administration will be headed by an administrator that is appointed by the President of the United States.

I am not completely sold on the idea that this administration would take care of the nuclear waste issues. How much money was spent on Yucca Mountain and with no results? I feel like this legislation is taking a step in the right direction but it is not going to fix the solution.

[1]  http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2013/04/30/a-new-authority-for-nuclear-waste/?ss=business%3Aenergy


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Permanent Nuclear Waste Storage: A (Very) Hot Potato, but WIPP Shows the Way

Disposing of nuclear waste from power plants is an issue that has not been addressed by the US, despite decades of talk and study. Way back in 1982, the US government passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which mandated the collection of billions of dollars from nuclear power plant operators with the promise that the US government would open a repository for permanent burial of the waste by January 31st, 1998 (1). The government later mandated that disposal facility would be built at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas and adjacent to the Nevada Test Site (home of many nuclear bomb tests), despite “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) opposition (2). To date, $37 billion has been collected from power plant operators, and $12 billion has been spent on studies and construction at Yucca Mountain (in addition to potential liability, from breach of contract, of $11 billion by 2020 for missing the 1998 deadline, according to the US Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works) (3), (4). However, no civilian waste has been placed in storage by the US government, as President Obama and the Department of Energy revoked funding from Yucca Mountain in 2010, just prior to licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, because of the combination of NIMBY protests from Nevada (generally from Las Vegas, 90 miles away), campaign promises in Nevada, and the exertion of influence from new Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada (2); instead, waste is still stored onsite at nuclear power plants in “temporary” storage (50% of the US population is within 75 miles of one of these facilities). Failure to address this issue jeopardizes public safety, security, and efficiency.

Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain

The most frustrating aspect of these delays is that another part of the US government has provided a successful blueprint to follow. Military nuclear waste (mainly from nuclear bomb design and testing) is disposed of in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), 26 miles east of Carlsbad, NM. Initially opened in 1999 (only 20 years after initial planning started), WIPP is 2,150 feet below the surface, in a 3,000 foot thick layer of salt buried under rock (the thickest in the country). This formation is far more ideal than that in Yucca Mountain-the salt is plastic and closes any cracks over time, by nature does not have water flow, is nowhere near a fault, and conducts heat five times better than volcanic rock (4). In fact, the US government tested using a salt mine for nuclear waste storage as far back as 1963 (3). Initially, WIPP was only used to store low level waste, such as cross-contaminated metallic equipment or gloves, due to lukewarm support at the state level, but recently proposals have been made to add more radioactive items like surplus plutonium triggers. Local residents, all the way to the mayor, have enthusiastically supported its initial construction and expansion because of the jobs and highway funds it brings; a collection of nuclear-related business has appeared in the area as well (5). WIPP has consistently operated safely and under budget since 1999, emptied out 22 facilities used for nuclear waste storage in the past, and stored over 200,000 tons of waste (4)(6).

WIPP-Courtesy of DOE

WIPP-Courtesy of DOE

Given the success and support, the obvious solution to the waste issue would be to either expand WIPP or build a similar facility nearby to store the spent nuclear material from power plants. Considering the rare and strong YIMBY (“Yes In My Back Yard”) response in the community, the ideal geologic conditions, the current impasse on Yucca Mountain, and the studies and design work already done by the military, the solution certainly seems ideal. My opinion, now that I am aware of WIPP’s existence, is that the government should pursue this option as soon as the Yucca Mountain project is officially and legally dead.

Salt Tunneling-Courtesy DOE

Salt Tunneling-Courtesy of DOE

(1) “Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982,” http://epw.senate.gov/nwpa82.pdf

(2) New York Times, “The ‘screw Nevada bill’ and how it stymied U.S. nuclear waste policy,” http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2009/05/11/11climatewire-the-screw-nevada-bill-and-how-it-stymied-us-12208.html?pagewanted=all

(3) Power Magazine, “The US Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy Road to Nowhere,” http://www.powermag.com/nuclear/The-U-S-Spent-Nuclear-Fuel-Policy-Road-to-Nowhere_2651_p5.html

*Excellent overview

(4) Forbes, “Nuke Us: The Town That Wants America’s Worst Atomic Waste,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2012/01/25/nuke-us-meet-the-town-that-wants-americas-worst-nuclear-waste/

*Excellent editorial

(5) Carlsbad Current-Argus, “Carlsbad residents voice support for WIPP plutonium proposal,” http://www.currentargus.com/ci_21417716/protesters-support-from-occupy-new-mexico-expected-at

(6) Forbes, “Nuclear Waste Gone from Hurricane Sandy’s Path,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2012/12/01/nuclear-waste-gone-from-hurricane-sandys-path/

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Does nuclear power have a bright future?

Nuclear power has always been, to me, the most intriguing source of power. In commercial reactors throughout the world, energy released from fission reactions is extracted and used in the form of heat to heat fluid in a power cycle such as a Rankine cycle, where the working fluid is water, to eventually generate electricity. In my studies of nuclear power, it seems like there are many advantages to its use, including low emissions of green house gases (CO2), and it is a highly efficient source of power. One thing that amazed me to find out was that a few small pellets of Uranium that can fit into your hand are capable of providing as much or more electricity than a ton of coal with fewer emissions and higher efficiency. It almost seems like the perfect source for creating energy, yet according to data for 2006, it only accounts for about 1/5 of US and world electric consumption, while in the US coal plants account for about half of the electric consumption.

Why might this be? Well, I guess a number of factors are at play, including size, scale, and cost of each type of power plant (Nuclear can be more expensive due to containment), maybe proliferation concerns, as well as national security issues. While congressional republicans tend to favor the use, democrats seem to be split on the issue, with some in favor of use calling it a potential renewable energy source, and others not wanting to consider it that because of certain environmental concerns. The current presidential administration’s view on that of Nuclear power is one that seems to favor its use. According to an article in US News, the administration’s Energy secretary, Steven Chu, stated to Congress in 2009 “I believe in nuclear power as a central part of our energy mix.” According to an excerpt from the Obama-Biden energy plan in 2009, “Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option. However, before an expansion of nuclear power is considered, key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.” It seems that in order to meet the goals to reduce climate change, yet still meet our energy demands, nuclear power should not be dismissed, but we must address certain concerns with this power source.

So what is the number 1 issue associated with this power source? Surprisingly, it is actually handling waste. The waste and byproducts associated with nuclear power can have very harmful adverse effects on the environment. There does not seem to exist a long term solution for handling waste as of now. This brings me to Yucca Mountain, located in Nevada, which is a proposed site for a large scale waste repository. Yucca Mountain is a very controversial issue associated with the handling of Nuclear Waste. According to a statement by President Obama, “I believe a better short-term solution is to store nuclear waste on-site at the reactors where it is produced, or at a designated facility in the state where it is produced, until we find a safe, long-term disposal solution that is based on sound science.” Furthermore, according to another article by US News, “the Yucca Mountain program will be scaled back to those costs necessary to answer inquiries from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.” It seems that the current administration’s view on the subject is that it is necessary to find safer short-term alternatives that do not require a large repository, until a sound long term alternative for waste handling can be devised.

Nuclear power is an interesting power source with what looks to be a bright future. Other applications of nuclear power seem to include use on naval vessels, and as a potential use for propulsion of space craft. In my opinion, I feel that it would be a mistake to reduce its usage, or even completely do away with it as an energy source. I agree with the current administration; if we intend to meet our climate goals and our power needs, it needs to be an important option, and more money and research needs to be put towards the matter to find suitable long-term waste handling options. Other countries, including France, use nuclear power to cover a large portion of their electrical consumption. Finally, I think that nuclear power is a great source of energy, but adequate measures need to be taken to address security and environmental waste issues.







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