Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

‘Nuclear Waste? What Nuclear Waste?’ Obama Shuts Down Yucca Moutain

Posted by K.E. White on March 13, 2009

The Obama administration has singled it will cut funding for Yucca Mountain, reopening the question of how America should handle the byproducts of its nuclear energy production.

So what will we do with all the waste? (And, for devoted readers, ‘Yucca Moutain Johnny’ can now never be revived.)

Well that depends if you believe there is such a thing as ‘nuclear waste’. The vast majority of ‘waste’ Yucca Mountain stored (more on that below) is recyclable if you reprocess it.

(This LA Times article does explain what Yucca Mountain stored)

William Tucker argues in favor of nuclear reprocessing in today’s WSJ.

Sp what’s the catch to the Tucker approach—and France currently uses? As pointed out in this 2008 report by The Union of Concerned Scientists, reprocessing is an expensive, a proliferation risk and actually more complicated to enact than a nuclear storage site.

From Tucker’s WSJ article:

So is this material “waste”? Absolutely not. Ninety-five percent of a spent fuel rod is plain old U-238, the nonfissionable variety that exists in granite tabletops, stone buildings and the coal burned in coal plants to generate electricity. Uranium-238 is 1% of the earth’s crust. It could be put right back in the ground where it came from.

Of the remaining 5% of a rod, one-fifth is fissionable U-235 — which can be recycled as fuel. Another one-fifth is plutonium, also recyclable as fuel. Much of the remaining three-fifths has important uses as medical and industrial isotopes. Forty percent of all medical procedures in this country now involve some form of radioactive isotope, and nuclear medicine is a $4 billion business. Unfortunately, we must import all our tracer material from Canada, because all of our isotopes have been headed for Yucca Mountain.

What remains after all this material has been extracted from spent fuel rods are some isotopes for which no important uses have yet been found, but which can be stored for future retrieval. France, which completely reprocesses its recyclable material, stores all the unused remains — from 30 years of generating 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy — beneath the floor of a single room at La Hague.

The supposed problem of “nuclear waste” is entirely the result of a the decision in 1976 by President Gerald Ford to suspend reprocessing, which President Jimmy Carter made permanent in 1977. The fear was that agents of foreign powers or terrorists groups would steal plutonium from American plants to manufacture bombs.

That fear has proved to be misguided. If foreign powers want a bomb, they will build their own reactors or enrichment facilities, as North Korea and Iran have done. The task of extracting plutonium from highly radioactive material and fashioning it into a bomb is far beyond the capacities of any terrorist organization.

So shed no tears for Yucca Mountain. Instead of ending the nuclear revival, it gives us the chance to correct a historical mistake and follow France’s lead in developing complete reprocessing for nuclear material.

The LA Times reviews just how much waste nuclear energy production now produces, emphasizing the need for sound federal policy when it comes to nuclear waste. (Note: The article does not mention nuclear reprocessing)

More than 57,000 tons of spent fuel rods already are stored next to reactors, just a few yards from containment buildings where they once generated nuclear-heated steam to drive massive electrical turbines.

The lack of a permanent solution poses a serious challenge to the industry’s plans to build more than 30 new reactors. Existing nuclear plants produce 2,000 tons of the long-lived waste each year, most of which is moved into pools of chilled water that allow the spent — but still highly lethal — uranium-235 to slowly and safely decay. Uranium-235 has a half-life of nearly 704 million years — meaning that half its atoms will decay in that time. 

But containment pools never were intended to store all of the spent fuel that a reactor creates. The idea was that the cool water would stabilize the enriched uranium until it could be sent to a reprocessing plant or stored in a centralized location.

Instead, it keeps piling up. Although industry officials insist the waste is safely stored in fenced-off buildings lined with concrete and lead, there are concerns that a leak or a terrorist attack could create an environmental catastrophe. Many of the nation’s nuclear plants are close to highly populated areas or next to bodies of water. 

As power companies run out of space in their containment pools, they increasingly are storing the waste above ground in concrete and metal casks. 

“We continue to ask the federal government to provide a clear solution for what the long-term storage of spent fuel will be,” said Marshall Murphy, spokesman for Exelon Nuclear, the owner of all seven nuclear plants in Illinois.

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