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Small Modular Reactors Raise Nuclear Waste Risk, Distract from Real Climate Solutions

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  • Jul 14, 2020

CANDU Owners Group/Twitter

The rise of “small” nuclear reactors (SMRs) raises serious concerns about radioactive waste disposal and is ultimately a distraction from real climate solutions, according to two separate analyses published days apart in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, two of the three provinces that have been touting the technology.

In New Brunswick, SMRs “will create irradiated fuel even more intensely radioactive per kilogram than waste currently stored at NB Power’s Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station,” write nuclear consultant Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR), and University of New Brunswick researcher Susan O’Donnell, a member of the NB Media Co-op. “The non-fuel radioactive wastes will remain the responsibility of the government of New Brunswick, likely requiring the siting of a permanent radioactive waste repository somewhere in the province.”

In Saskatchewan, Darrin Qualman, director of climate crisis policy at the National Farmers Union, and NFU farmer Glenn Wright trace their province’s history with what they cast as a failed past attempt at an “E85 highway” fuelled by ethanol, followed by the stunning failure of its adventures with carbon capture and storage. “SMRs are the third chapter in the government’s use of distracting technologies to kick the climate change can down the road,” they state. “Thoughtful, informed people can disagree over nuclear energy, but even those who support nuclear power should be angered by what the government is doing: Not supporting nuclear, but rather using it cynically as a fig leaf to cover up the government’s ideologically-driven foot-dragging on climate solutions.”

“The two New Brunswick prototypes are both designed to reuse spent CANDU fuel bundles,” Edwards and O’Donnell explain, and “the basic problem is that you cannot access the materials inside the spent fuel from Lepreau except by opening up the solid bundles and converting them into a molten or liquid form. The spent fuel contains hundreds of human-made radioactive poisons that were created inside the Lepreau nuclear reactor. Some of these poisons are gases or vapours, making it extremely difficult to keep all dangerous materials in check and accounted for. In prior operations of this kind, radioactive pollutants have invariably escaped into the environment.”

And reopening the bundles “would revive fears of a ‘plutonium economy’, a civilian traffic in special nuclear materials that governments or criminals or terrorists can use to make powerful nuclear weapons or radiological explosives called ‘dirty bombs’ without the need for sophisticated or readily detectable infrastructure.”

By contrast, “there are numerous proven technologies, policies, and strategies to address climate change and reduce emissions being implemented worldwide. Our government is delaying because it chooses to, not because it has to,” the Saskatchewan authors add. 

“In the best case, SMRs are 2030s or 2040s technologies,” they note. “But solar and wind power can provide low-emission electricity today. In fact, our province has among the best solar and wind resources in the world and those power supplies can be deployed at less cost, lower risk, and much more quickly. It’s strange that the sunniest province in Canada has not developed this world-class renewable resource. Real leadership would focus on wind and solar.”

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Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 14, 2020

I don't agree. It's not the popular consensus, but in fact radioactive waste disposal is a phony issue. There isn't that much of it to begin with, and the hazards of low level radiation have been vastly overblown.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 14, 2020

At the very least, though, isn't there a shelf life for how long existing nuclear plants can continue storing waste on site? Shouldn't there be a national plan to deal with this (which would already be the case if being the state designated for federal nuclear waste storage hadn't unfortunately become the biggest NIMBY due to nuclear nervousness by the public)?

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 15, 2020

Not really. Spent fuel assemblies from an NPP are first placed in a deep on-site pool for cooldown. The storage space there is certainly limited, but the assemblies only need to remain for a year or so while the most highly radioactive waste products decay. After that, the assemblies are cool enough to be removed and placed into dry casks for "interim" storage. If the casks are 5 meters tall, then they can store about 10 tons of waste per square meter.of open parking lot where they will sit. A conventional one GW NPP produces about 25 tons of waste per year. Hence a one-hectare parking lot can accommodate 400 years of waste from a one GW NPP.

That's for conventional 3rd generation light water reactors. Most 4th generation reactor designs have much more complete fuel and waste burnup. Depending on which specific design we're talking about, SMRs built around 4th generation design technology would produce roughly a tenth as much waste per TWh of generation as current light water reactors. Plus the waste that they do produce decays more quickly. After about 300 years, IIRC, it's about as radioactive as the raw ore from which the nuclear fuel was extracted.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 16, 2020

To be clear, the reduction in nuclear waste from Gen 4 reactors that you mentioned is mostly a benefit of reprocessing the spent fuel, and returning the trans-uranics (TRUs) to a suitable reactor for consumption.

For example, the 1980s era vision for nuclear power in the US, France, the UK, and Japan was that we would have a mixed fleet consisting of light water reactors (LSRs) and fast breeder reactors, with the breeders performing the dual role of breeding plutonium fuel (from our inexhaustible uranium resources) for the LWRs and consuming their long-lived waste, i.e. "closing the nuclear cycle".

When the bean counters noticed that such a pro-environment scenario would cost slightly more than just dumping the waste in a hole, and environmental group became fiercely opposed to any nuclear (and especially in-exhaustible nuclear), that dream withered in most locations (it is still part of the Chinese vision).

Several of the Gen 4 reactors do advance the case for closed cycle nuclear, however.  Beyond their other attributes, the molten salt reactors are expected to lower the cost of reprocessing used fuel because of the convenient liquid fuel form (alternatively metal fuel also helps with this a little).  And of course the fast reactors (sodium, lead, or gas cooled, and the fast molten salt) can perform the role of breeder/waste burner.  Adding thorium to a closed cycle will reduce the percentage of the reactors that need to be of the fast type (since less TRUs are produced by burning thorium), especially for molten salt reactors.

But the waste discussion will not be complete without mentioning that nuclear waste is the easiest waste form to manage, of all the waste streams we generate, because it is so very compact compared to large economic value the energy product represents.  In contrast, burning fossil fuel produces so much waste that it must be dumped into the atmosphere because every alternative is economically unthinkable.  The fact that it is centralized and concentrated makes it easier to manage compared to waste from solar PV (which will likely be buried in shallow distributed land-fills, leaching chemicals into our drinking water for all eternity).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 16, 2020

Thank you, Roger and Nathan, for providing EC readers with excellent, fact-based information on the non-issue of spent fuel storage.

"To be clear, the reduction in nuclear waste from Gen 4 reactors that you mentioned is mostly a benefit of reprocessing the spent fuel, and returning the trans-uranics (TRUs) to a suitable reactor for consumption."

Nathan, during a visit to Argonne National Laboratory in 2017 I was able to chat with the director of its Nuclear Engineering Outreach Committee, Roger Blomquist. He had worked on Argonne's Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) program, and said it was "ready for prime time" when Bill Clinton and John Kerry killed the program in 1994.

As you know, the IFR might have been the most suitable design for consuming TRUs to date. Blomquist had recently visited Prairie Island Nuclear Plant in Minnesota, and said the spent fuel stored on premises at the plant could power an IFR for 900 years.

The biggest problem with geologic spent fuel storage is not that it won't stay put, but that we won't be able to get it out again.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 19, 2020

Yep, the IFR could sustainably power our civilization, while having the lowest environmental impact of any energy source (i.e. much lower than renewables).

The book Plentiful Energy describes IFR in detail, and is now available free on-line.

Also, the ARC-100 is a proposed 100 MW SMR that uses technology from EBR-II and IFR.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 15, 2020

there are numerous proven technologies, policies, and strategies to address climate change and reduce emissions being implemented worldwide...."

The irony here is that more than three decades into the era of modern renewables, the only major grids which have ever deeply decarbonized have done so using a combination of nuclear and big-hydro (the examples that come to mind are France, Switzerland, and Sweden; although the Canadian province of Ontario is also largely decarbonized using nuclear and hydro).

In fact, (with the exception of perhaps California) the countries that cheer the loudest for renewables and against nuclear (Germany and Australia come to mind) tend to have very strong coal industries, and their energy plans have been successful at keeping coal in the picture for the foreseeable future.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 16, 2020


I notice you don't mention wind when you refer to Sweden - I guess 3rd place doesn't count.  

Wind generation may pass nuclear generation in Sweden over the next few years. Note: Ringhals-1 nuclear reactor shuts down later this year following the shutdown of Ringhals-2 (Dec 2019).

If that is case - will you start using Sweden as a grid that has deeply decarbonized using a combination of wind and big-hydro?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 16, 2020

Sure Joe, provided wind and hydro (and optionally solar) provide 90% of annual consumption, and substantially all of the load following.  The last criteria is getting harder and harder to determine, now that much of Europe is interconnected with the German coal grid.

Are you willing to admit that nuclear&hydro is today's only proven decarbonization solution?

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 16, 2020

Are you willing to admit that nuclear&hydro is today's only proven decarbonization solution?

Not at all.  I think that statement has no factual support.

I'm assuming that "today" means recent past, now and near future. 

Nuclear was a great decarbonization solution in the 1980s and 1990s. There were large amounts of increased nuclear generation in these decades.

If we look at recent past nuclear has done nothing. In fact, nuclear generation WW has still not returned to its peak from 2006. 

If we look at now - 2020 - we see that 3 nuclear plants have shutdown WW and zero plants have started construction so far this year. Going backwards.

In the near future - next 5-10 years - there may be a small increase in generation from nuclear. It depends if new reactors in China and Russia can offset closing reactors elsewhere. 

How about hydro - its generation has gone up from 3,436 TWh in 2010 to 4,222 TWh in 2019.  Almost an  800 TWh increase. Pretty substantial. Not sure if that pace will continue in the near future - but yes I would consider hydro to be part of "today's proven decarbonization solution".

What about renewables? Renewable generation WW has gone from 760 TWh in 2010 to 2,805 TWh in 2019.  An increase of 2,000 TWh in the last decade.  Although perhaps slightly slower this year - I would expect renewable generation to continue at this pace over the next decade.

So really, the current facts show that renewables and hydro are "today's proven decarbonization solution".  


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 16, 2020

Joe, here in California the current facts show that hydro was excluded from 2030 climate goals (SB100)  not by nuclear or gas interests, but by wind and solar advocates.

Q: If hydro is renewable, why was it excluded from SB-100's climate goals for the next 10 years?

A: Because wind and solar farm entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to grab market share.

Lest anyone still believe otherwise, promoting wind and solar has nothing to do with preventing climate change and everything to do with greed.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 16, 2020

Bob... was this comment meant for this chain?  I don't see the relevance.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 17, 2020

"So really, the current facts show that renewables and hydro are 'today's proven decarbonization solution'".

Solar/wind want nothing to do with hydro. Because it's the least-expensive renewable source and there's lots of it, hydro is a close second to nuclear on solar/wind's hit list. And for good reason: it's only a matter of time before clean, dispatchable sources - no batteries needed - render solar and wind extinct.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 17, 2020


I agree that many renewable advocates - at least in US - and especially in CA - are missing the boat when it comes to other Zero carbon generation.

In fact CA seems to almost hide the fact that Hydro and Nuclear are included in the 100% ZC by 2040 - SB 100. Note that in the below from FAQ they don't even like to use the word nuclear.

Is SB 100 a 100% renewable requirement or carbon-free requirement? What is the difference?

SB 100 requires that at least 60% of electricity be generated for CA by 2030 from “eligible renewable energy resources (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, small hydro, renewable methane, ocean wave or thermal, or fuel cells using renewable fuels).

The remaining 40% can come from any of those resources, plus existing large hydro and any other zero-carbon polluting resources. This latter provision leaves the door open to new technologies we may not know about today that could meet future state needs while protecting the environment.

Also this strange comment on hydro.

What about hydropower from dams – will that count?

California already gets about 10% of its electricity from large hydropower, and to the extent EXISTING hydroelectric power is zero-carbon and does not result in resource shuffling or increases in greenhouse gas emissions, it counts towards the 100% clean, zero carbon energy requirement. This is primarily because existing hydro that is already used to serve California electricity needs is cheaper for ratepayers, and is already built with costs accounted for in electric bills.

I was surprised to see this headline from California Energy Commission the other day.

New data shows nearly two-thirds of California’s electricity came from carbon-free sources in 2019

They even mentioned showed Hydro and Nuclear in chart.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 17, 2020

California already gets about 10% of its electricity from large hydropower, and to the extent EXISTING hydroelectric power is zero-carbon and does not result in resource shuffling or increases in greenhouse gas emissions

That is interesting wording-- is this just the idea that building new hydro would inherently have construction carbon costs? Because of course ANY new energy infrastructure construction would have those as well..

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 19, 2020

"Note that in the below from FAQ they don't even like to use the word nuclear..."

An intentional omission. In backroom negotiations over the language used in SB-100, only renewable, non-large-hydro sources qualified for the 2030 goal - no "zero-carbon sources" - to ensure Diablo Canyon would be shut down before its next licensing period begins in 2025-26.

Because new nuclear is banned by state law until a national waste repository is established, nuclear electricity generation will be banned in California indefinitely.

The wildcard is Joe Biden. If elected, he pledges to work to keep existing plants open - although with states writing the rules these days, there may not be much he can do.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 17, 2020

Sorry, I meant deep decarbonization.  Sure, wind and solar are viable solutions when the goal is  10-25% grid decarbonization, and are proven at this level in part of the US (e.g. the Southwest Power Pool grid).

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 17, 2020

The Southwest Power Pool is a great example of "today's proven decarbonization solution".  

  1. Has decarbonized significantly in last decade
  2. is decarbonizing in 2020
  3. Will continue to decarbonize significantly over the next decade. 

However, you haven't been keeping up. It's already far past your 10-25% grid decarbonization goal.

In 2019 SPP's fuel mix was about 39% carbon free.

In the 1st quarter of 2020 wind was up 5% Y-Y from 26% in 2019 to 31% in 2020. Wind generation was the top resource in this quarter. From 2021 onward wind will be the top resource for full year on SPP grid.

There are plenty of more wind projects under construction and in development. Plus, solar is finally starting to grow in SPP. 

Coal will continue to drop - and will be in low single digits by 2030.  SPPs fuel mix in 2030 will be 60-65% Zero Carbon. 

Perhaps we will some SMRs on SPP grid in the 2030s.

Joe Deely's picture
Joe Deely on Jul 16, 2020

 "German coal grid" ?? Below is only first half of 2020 but note that coal in Germany dropped from 228 TWh - 2018 to 171 TWh in 2019. A similar drop in 2020 would mean full year numbers in this range.

2020 - H1

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