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BRC Offers Strategy for Today’s Nuclear Waste, Is Deadlocked on Tomorrow’s

Nathan Wilson's picture
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Nathan Wilson has a bachelor's and a master's degree in electrical engineering, and currently works as a software engineer in the aerospace industry. He is excited about clean energy, and hopes...

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  • Aug 12, 2011
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The DOE’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has published a draft of its report to the secretary of energy (http://brc.gov and BRC Draft Report, 192 pages long)

Nuke Waste BarrelsThe big thing the Blue Ribbon Commission was able to agree on, including the pro and anti nuclear members, is that our existing stock of spent nuclear fuel will require a geological disposal facility (maybe for direct disposal, maybe for post-recycling waste).  With that, they were able to produce a seven pronged strategy for making it happen.

  1. A new, consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities.
  2. A new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed.
  3. Access to the funds nuclear utility ratepayers are providing for the purpose of nuclear waste management.
  4. Prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.
  5. Prompt efforts to develop one or more consolidated interim storage facilities.
  6. Support for continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development.
  7. Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, nonproliferation, and security concerns.

What they weren’t able to agree on was the question of using an open versus a closed fuel cycle in the future,  in other words, whether or not the era of nuclear power should end when the cheap uranium runs out (possibly sometime this century).  The compromise they worked out, was to agree that no decision was needed just yet, and in particular, they thought we should not “commit irreversibly” to one path (i.e. the first repository should offer  “retrievability” of waste for some period of time).

Surprisingly, the committee was not asked to “Offered a judgment about the appropriate role of nuclear power in the nation’s (or the world’s) future energy supply mix.”  This had the side-effect of allowing the committee to produce a rather one-sided document, which lists the scary hazards of nuclear waste, without really explaining (or even admitting) that nuclear power is enormously safer than fossil fuel.  They did build a compelling case for a speedy resolution to the waste impasse, for the purpose of not burdening future generations with our problems.

Disappointingly, the Reactor and Fuel Cycle Technology (RFCT) subcommittee didn’t find much reason to like nuclear recycling technology (with today’s light water reactors, it provides a 19% reduction in ore use but no major change in the waste repository space requirement). 

The RFCT subcommittee was luke-warm toward recycling with fast reactors too.  They described them as “sustainable for centuries” without directly refuting the convincing claims by proponents that they are sustainable for millions of years (the document generally says very little about sustainability).  They also cite questionable economics and need for more R&D.

However, the RFCT subcommittee was impressed with the high temperature reactor currently under development, for its potential to reduce fossil fuel use for industrial process heat and hydrogen production, with the resulting benefits for energy security and CO2 reductions.  The high temperature reactor is a research area for one of the subcommittee co-chairs, Dr. Per Peterson.

Their recommendation for consolidated interim storage facilities also advances both pro and anti- nuclear causes.  These facilities will be much cheaper and faster to develop than permanent repositories.  Also, since interim storage time lets the waste cool, less space in the final repository will be required.  As a result, they are the fastest, best way to accommodate either: a surge in nuclear power plant decommissioning, or a surge in new plant construction. 

Rapid deployment of an interim storage facility is expected to save quite a bit of money too.  Apparently, there are (or soon will be) some decommissioned nuclear plants on valuable real estate, that could be put back to good use if it weren’t for the nuclear waste sitting there collecting dust while under the watchful eyes of highly paid security guards. The ominous example chosen by the commission is $350M-550M to guard the waste at all of the roughly 70 US nuclear plants, were they to be shutdown and decommissioned today.

Quite a bit of the document focuses on avoiding a repeat of the public relations disaster that is Yucca Mountain.  This history is contrasted with the successful WIPP repository, which has been operating for 12 year in New Mexico.  Hopefully the committee’s insights will empower voters to prevent the government from repeating the same mistakes again.

Overall, the committee has made an important contribution to resolution the nuclear waste stalemate with this document, which is thorough in this particular area.  It’s just a pity that they didn’t more broadly address “America’s Nuclear Future”.

 

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 12, 2011

Thank you Nathan. You present the array of issues regarding even this specific topic very clearly. It sounds like fresh leadership is emerging.

Lacking meaningful nuclear knowledge, I’m comforted by their openness and caution.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 12, 2011
DiogenesNJ, I’ll just have to take your word for it and hope your community enlightenment falls on younger ears. At my age I’m lucky to have all my fingers and toes. It comes from being cautious. Thanks though.
David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Aug 12, 2011

President Obama’s executive order directing Stephen Chu to establish this commission indicated that expanding the use of nuclear power was “critical to accomplishing many of my Administration’s most significant goals”, because ramping up nuclear is “crucial to our ability to combat climate change”, enhance energy security, and increase economic prosperity”.  There isn’t any grey area there.  One wonders what “anti nuclear” members were doing anywhere near this committee.  

The Commission wasn’t asked to consider where nuclear fits into the overall plan for the development of US energy resources.  They were told the US is going to ramp up nuclear because it is “crucial” to the President’s “most significant goals“.  

The stand they took on the fuel cycle is “The Commission believes it is premature to try to reach consensus“, which is quite a bit different than “no decision is needed just yet”.  They pointed out that it costs a lot of money to avoid making decisions.  “Liabilities are already in the billions of dollars and are projected to increase by $500 million for each additional year of delay”.  People who expect the Commission to pretend that US society is ready to reach a consensus decision on this were disappointed.  I wonder why.  

The reason the Commission gives for their point 3 is that the Nuclear Waste Fund was raided by Congress to apply against the federal deficit for accounting purposes.  They point out that the “sole purpose” of taxing ratepayers to get those funds was to ensure that the waste program “would not have to compete with other funding priorities”.  “This situation must be remedied to allow the program to succeed”.  

They justified point 4 saying “all spent fuel reprocessing or recycle options either already available or under active development at this time still generate waste streams that require a permanent disposal solution”. Supporters of options not under active development such as the one advocated by TEC contributor Barry Brook apparently hotly dispute this.  

all spent fuel reprocessing
or recycle options either already available or under active development at this time still generate waste
streams that require a permanent disposal solutioall spent fuel reprocessingor recycle options either already available or under active development at this time still generate wastestreams that require a permanent disposal solution”

Point 6. where they recommend that the feds sustain funding for R&D noted that they were aware that the feds face “extaordinary fiscal pressures”.  They “urge” DOE to “refine its nuclear roadmap”.  They want R&D on “advanced reactor and fuel cycle technologies” to proceed, because “the possibility exists to advance game changing innovations that offer potentially large advantages over current technologies and systems“.  They want the NRC “to lower barriers to commercial investment by increasing confidence that new systems can be successfully licensed”.  They want the feds to make whatever funds are necessary available so there can be a “robust effort in this area“.  They want to see the US start innovating and deploying new nuclear again.  

Point 7, the “safety, non-poroliferation and security concerns” – “the US cannot exercise effective leadership… so long as its own program is in disarry;  effective domestic policies are needed to support America’s international agenda”.  .  

Section 9 of the main report is concerned with regulations for disposal facilities “as this is the area that presents the most challenging regulatory issues”.  

They made a formal recommendation “that Congress charter the National Academy of Sciences to assess lessons learned from Fukushima with respect to spent fuel“.  They note that the NRC, IAEA and other agencies are also looking at what happened in Japan.  They want any new requirements “implemented as expeditiously as possible”.  Pro nuclear bloggers who pretend the NAS is discredited and corrupt, eg, over LNT, take note:  why doesn’t this Commission agree with you?  

Then they kicked the can down the road:  “[we] have not attempted to develop specific recommendations concerning the appropriate form and stringency of regulatory standards for disposal facilities. Resolving these issues will involve societal value judgments that should be mediated through the normal regulatory development process.”  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 12, 2011

The BRC is using a process which is very open.  In fact, the public has until October 31 to send in comments prior to completion of the final draft (see the BRC website linked in the text).

The BRC is also quite committed to a cautious and environmentally safe disposal solution.  Yet, given progress at the WIPP, as well as in Finland and Sweden, they say: “…we are convinced by our investigations that such a disposal solution can be found.” P. 2

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 12, 2011

Not to sound silly, but there is always a sense of fulfillment in older people to see younger people competently moving forward.

I’m completing things I started long ago. It sounds like you are doing some vital work. Very best of luck.

karrie karrie's picture
karrie karrie on Dec 1, 2011

Hopefully this initiative will bring a change, disposing nuclear items is not something that should be taken lightly. I am glad that my only actual concern for me now as a citizen is to comply with our local garbage removal NJ service but there’s more than that, things that we don’t think about. So the best we can do now is hope that good decision will save the day.

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