How to store nuclear waste? Panel slams US and urges new approach.
A presidential blue ribbon commission says the US government 'has not inspired confidence' and recommends that a new agency take over the search for storage sites for nuclear waste.
(Page 2 of 2)
But while applauding creation of a new entity to develop long-term siting, nuclear critics questioned the idea of new interim sites and of holding out the option of reprocessing spent fuel. Interim sites would inevitably mean transporting masses of nuclear waste from all over the country to those sites – and then eventually to a long-term disposal site – raising cost and safety concerns.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures US nuclear power plants
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“I don't think they made a compelling case for rapid deployment of interim storage facilities away from reactor sites,” says Edwin Lyman, a nuclear physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “It’s not clear that the purported benefits of interim storage would outweigh the expense, political difficulty, and additional transportation risks involved.”
Consolidating the nation’s fuel from 65 active nuclear plant sites and a number of decommissioned reactor sites where fuel sits in “dry casks” outdoors – would put it all in a few “safe and secure” sites, and keep options for the future, the commission writes. At the same time, it reduces taxpayer liability since the nuclear power industry has sued the federal government for breach of an agreement to create a long-term nuclear waste repository and take away spent nuclear fuel building up at reactor sites.
But Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, says the government could simply insist that the nuclear utilities store the spent fuel in dry casks on reactor sites while waiting for the final repository – and avoid liability and the huge political and financial costs involved.
“Look, right now the nuclear industry is playing hardball with the government – but the government could play that too,” he says. “All the government needs to do is remind the industry that taxpayers are footing the bill for the Price-Anderson Act – which caps industry liability in case of an accident at $12.5 billion. Maybe then they would be willing to participate in developing a permanent solution, but without suing taxpayers.”
Other experts also questioned the report’s recommendations on keeping options open for fuel reprocessing and other advanced fuel cycle technologies that might, in the future, be used to extract remaining nuclear energy from the tons of waste.
“Basically, when in doubt, ask for more R&D,” writes Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist at Princeton University and an expert on nuclear weapons proliferation in an e-mail interview. “I am not aware of any strong nonproliferation, economic or environmental arguments for reprocessing and recycle.”
On the question of international leadership, it might be more useful, he says, to simply lead by example. Several new fuel enrichment plants in the US are under multinational ownership and through regulation could be nudged to “push their operations toward transparency of operations.” It would then be quickly apparent and nations “could forcefully object if there were plans to produce highly enriched uranium at the facilities, which are only licensed to produce low-enriched uranium.”
The report’s recommendations are now open to public comment until October. Final recommendations go to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in January. Despite their criticism, some experts applauded the commission for its effort.
“The commission has an impossible task, so we can’t fault them if they haven’t come up with a perfect solution,” Dr. Lyman says. “We can wish as much as we want that a process can be developed for siting of the new repository. But it will take more than a commission report to effect that kind of change.”