The future of spent nuclear fuel
A blue ribbon commission will hold its first meeting March 25-26 in Washington, DC
A panel of nuclear energy experts appointed by the federal government will take up the issue of what to do with 60,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. Appointed by Department of Energy Sec. Steven Chu, the 15 members of a Blue Ribbon Commission will look at a broad range of options for managing the material and related nuclear waste from the nation’s nuclear reactors. The one choice they won’t have is to use Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That option is off the table. [White House – Presidential Memorandum]
The panel was appointed Jan 29 with the objective of coming up with solutions to dealing with spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. The “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future” will conduct a comprehensive review for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. Within 18 months it will produce a draft report on alternatives for storage, reprocessing, and disposal of civilian and defense spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. A final report is due in January 2012.
The Commission is being co-chaired by former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. The other 13 members of the Commission include a wide range of expertise. [See list of members at end of this blog post.]
Justifying the Commission’s charter
The official statements from the White House and the Energy Dept. are full of sound bites about the justification for the panel. Energy Sec. Chu led off with this one.
“Nuclear energy provides clean, safe, reliable power and has an important role to play as we build a low-carbon future. The Administration is committed to promoting nuclear power in the United States and developing a safe, long-term solution for the management of used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste."
Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, said as the world moves to tackle climate change and diversify the nation's energy portfolio, nuclear energy will play a vital role.
“Today, the Obama Administration has taken an important step. With the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission, we are bringing together leading experts from around the country to ensure a safe and sustainable nuclear energy future.”
"Finding an acceptable long-term solution to our used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste storage needs is vital to the economic, environmental and security interests of the United States," said Congressman Lee Hamilton.
“As the United States responds to climate change and moves forward with a long overdue expansion of nuclear energy, we also need to work together to find a responsible, long-term strategy to deal with the leftover fuel and nuclear waste," said General Brent Scowcroft.
Commission’s charter is a daunting list of tasks
The panel will look at policies and technologies. Here’s a short summary of their agenda.
- Evaluate existing fuel cycle technologies and R&D programs. The criteria include cost, safety, as well as nonproliferation and counter-terrorism goals.
- Identify options for safe interim storage of spent nuclear fuel while long-term solutions are worked out.
- Identify options for permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste including deep geological disposal
- Address management, legal, and commercial issues for cost-effectively managing spent nuclear fuel
- Conduct in the panel’s deliberations in a manner that is open to broad public participation
- Propose new legislation where needed
How did we get here?
Until President Barack Obama took office, the nation’s planned solution for spent nuclear fuel was to store it inside a mountain in Nevada. Yucca Mountain was controversial from the start. Once Nevada Sen. Harry Reid became the Senate Majority Leader, he called on President Obama to keep his campaign promises. Yucca Mountain was off the table. This action took place after the government has already spent $11 billion digging a hole in the ground.
The project was started in 1987 and was funded with fees paid by ratepayers of the nation’s nuclear utilities who operate 104 nuclear reactors. These plants produce roughly 2,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel a year. Across the U.S. the nation is storing 64,000 metric tons of spent fuel at reactor sites because there is no place else to put it.
The current and growing inventory of spent fuel is stored one of two ways – underwater in cooling pools or in dry cask storage. Both methods are safe and dry cask storage may be good for 100-150 years. Of the 64,000 tons of fuel stored at reactors, 9,000 tons are in dry cask storage and this method will grow over time to become the preferred means of storing spent nuclear fuel.
Spent fuel reprocessing option
There are multiple methods available to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Issues involving cost and management of waste products from spent fuel reprocessing are yet to be resolved. Spent nuclear fuel from U.S. Navy ships was reprocessed at a plant in Idaho for several decades. France reprocesses its spent fuel. Areva, the French state-owed nuclear firm, has proposed bringing its technology to the U.S. for development of a commercial spent fuel reprocessing facility.
The reason for all this activity is that 95% of the energy in the spent fuel is still available for future use. Experts claim it makes no sense to use the fuel once and then throw it away. It would be like buying a six pack of beer, drinking one can, and than tossing the others in the trash.
See this article published by the World Nuclear Association for more information on the various methods for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.
MOX fuel option
Another method for dealing with spent fuel is to produce mixed oxide fuel (MOX) which is the combination of uranium and plutonium. Worldwide nearly three dozen reactors burn MOX fuel. Japan has brought several reactors online in recent years to burn MOX.
Production of MOX fuel is a proven method for taking weapons grade plutonium and immobilizing it in a way that it can be used to generate electricity. It blends the plutonium taken from nuclear weapons with uranium from spent nuclear fuel. It is the ultimate expression of the ancient biblical phrase from Isaiah in the Old Testament to “beat swords into ploughshares.”
The U.S. is building a MOX fuel production plant in Savannah River, SC, which will come online in 2016. The Tennessee Valley Authority and Duke Power have signed agreements to test MOX fuel in their conventional light water reactors.
See this article published by the World Nuclear Association for more information on the production and use of MOX fuel.
Fast breeder reactors option
A longer term option is to build fast breeder reactors which will burn plutonium. In the process of burning the fuel they produce yet more plutonium thus creating future fuel supplies.
The technology is still in the future as an economical choice. Accountability for the plutonium produced by the reactor is a major nonproliferation issue.
Japan, China, and Russia are developing fast breeder reactor designs with an objective of bringing them online by the end of the next decade. See this article in Scientific American for more details on this technology.
During the Bush administration an ambitious and hugely expensive program to rapidly build spent fuel reprocessing centers and fast reactors. It was not approved by Congress.
The National Academy of Sciences provided the justification for halting the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). It said that R&D on the program should be stopped because the science for these technologies was not proven, and the funds should be invested in development of Generation IV reactor designs.
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These are only a few of the technology options. The Commission’s main tasks will be in the policy arena. The Commission must also take international diplomacy into account because what the U.S. decides to do with its spent nuclear fuel will set a precedent for its work on nonproliferation of nuclear weapons materials.
This is a very tough problem, but the good news is the Commission’s membership is composed of people who are “A” list experts on nuclear energy. The real challenge for them is to work together given the wide range of expertise and perspectives they bring to the task.
Members of the Blue Ribbon Commission
Lee Hamilton represented Indiana's 9th congressional district from January 1965-January 1999. During his time in Congress, Hamilton served as the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and chaired the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He is currently president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University.
He is a member of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board and the President's Homeland Security Advisory Council. Previously, Hamilton served as Vice Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9/11 Commission).
- Brent Scowcroft, Co-Chair
Brent Scowcroft is President of The Scowcroft Group, an international business advisory firm. He has served as the National Security Advisor to both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. From 1982 to 1989, he was Vice Chairman of Kissinger Associates, Inc., an international consulting firm.
Scowcroft served in the military for 29 years, and concluded at the rank of Lieutenant General following service as the Deputy National Security Advisor. Out of uniform, he continued in a public policy capacity by serving on the President's Advisory Committee on Arms Control, the Commission on Strategic Forces, and the President's Special Review Board, also known as the Tower Commission.
Mark Ayers, President, Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO
Vicky Bailey, Former Commissioner, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Former IN PUC Commissioner; Former Department of Energy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs
Albert Carnesale, Chancellor Emeritus and Professor, UCLA
Pete V. Domenici, Senior Fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center; former U.S. Senator (R-NM)
Susan Eisenhower, President, Eisenhower Group, Inc.
Chuck Hagel, Former U.S. Senator (R-NE)
Jonathan Lash, President, World Resources Institute
Allison Macfarlane, Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University
Richard A. Meserve, President, Carnegie Institution for Science, and former Chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Ernie Moniz, Professor of Physics and Cecil & Ida Green Distinguished Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Per Peterson, Professor and Chair, Department of Nuclear Engineering, University of California - Berkeley
John Rowe, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation
Phil Sharp, President, Resources for the Future
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