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Energy Daily: Domenici, Reid Might Be Eyeing Deal on Used Fuel

Here's one story from this yesterday's edition of Energy Daily (subscription required) that caught our attention:
Rumors are afoot that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Pete Domenici and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid are discussing joint legislation that would call for keeping spent nuclear fuel at nuclear reactor sites while the government develops a program for reprocessing spent fuel, sources say...

[D]omenici and Reid are discussing legislation directing the Energy Department to assume responsibility for spent fuel at dozens of reactor sites across the country, rather than delivering it to a planned repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as has been planned for decades.

As a longer-term solution, the proposal would direct DOE to begin developing a program to reprocess the spent fuel, among other possible provisions, sources say. Reprocessing would extract plutonium and uranium for possible recycling into fresh reactor fuel, but would still leave some high-level nuclear waste for disposal...

A strong supporter of nuclear power, Domenici may see the combination of at-reactor storage and reprocessing as the best solution to the spent fuel problem and thus a way to encourage new plant construction.
There has been no official comment from either senator or a specific piece of legislation introduced, so the details of this proposal haven’t been forthcoming.

However, we can say this: The nuclear industry would oppose any scenario that fails to address the government's obligation under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to move used nuclear fuel from plant sites for centralized storage and, ultimately, disposal. Failure to do this fails to meet the government's obligation -- something the federal courts have upheld in a series of rulings beginning in the 1990s and for which electricity consumers have paid $25 billion over the last two decades.

Further, DOE taking title to the fuel, but keeping it scattered at 67 sites does nothing to advance the policy of securing a long-term disposal facility for used nuclear fuel, nor does it address what we'll do with high-level radioactive waste from U.S. defense programs. Our figures estimate that this proposal will create an unnecessary $1 billion per year in costs that will have to be borne by U.S. taxpayers.

The nuclear industry welcomes new ideas on how the federal government can fulfill its obligation to manage used nuclear fuel sooner rather than later. At the same time, as a matter of national policy, Yucca Mountain should remain the ultimate disposal site once the facility is licensed by the NRC—whether or not we develop reprocessing technology.

The question before us shouldn't be Yucca Mountain or some other alternative. Instead, we would welcome any proposals that would speed us to an ultimate solution that would include features like long-term monitoring and fuel retrievability and additional program elements.

For a number of decades, America's best scientists have held that geologic disposal is the safest way to deal with used fuel over the long term -- something that Congress affirmed in 2002. In addition, industry has supported interim storage at alternative locations as long as it could be demonstrated that this would facilitate the federal government meeting its obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, while continuing to keep to its goal of opening a geological repository at Yucca Mountain.

As for reprocessing, we think it has the potential to cut costs and make disposal more efficient over the long haul. Unfortunately, the advanced technologies needed to achieve that simply don't exist right now, and in any case, it wouldn't substantially reduce the volume of waste sent to Yucca Mountain. And since the heat content of used fuel limits the size of the permanent disposal facility, the current state of reprocessing technology would have no impact on the physical size of the repository.

While the industry supports research and development into advanced reprocessing, and promise to make it more efficient by seperating out the short-lived high-heat elements and shortening the lives of long-lived waste or transmutation or fission in a fast spectrum reactor, we estimate that it may take 15 years or more for R&D, licensing and construction of such a facility.

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Comments

Paul W. Primavera said…
Eric,

I agree with you that the government must fulfill its responsibilities relative to the disposition of spent nuclear fuel inasmuch as the nuclear industry paid the government for such disposition. Nevertheless, in my opinion, reprocessing is the ultimate solution to reduce the amount of long lived wastes that must eventually go into geologic repository. As you realize, two technologies can make this a reality: the integral fast reactor and the Carlo Rubbia energy amplifier.

INTEGRAL FAST REACTOR:

http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/phy99/phy99xx7.htm

http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA378.html

CARLO RUBBIA ENERGY AMPLIFIER

http://einstein.unh.edu/FWHersman/energy_amplifier.html

http://www.nea.fr/html/trw/docs/saturne8/sat15.pdf#search='carlo%20rubbia%20energy%20amplifier'

http://doc.cern.ch//archive/electronic/other/generic/public/cer-0210391.pdf

Until economics force us to reprocess, maybe we should use a geological repository (e.g., Yucca Mountain) to store the spent fuel. When we need it, then it will be available for reprocessing.

Additionally, there is far more naturally occurring Th-232 than U-235, and in a reactor Th-232 can be transmutated into U-233 which is fissile. The Indians are working on such a design:

http://www.iaea.org/programmes/inis/aws/fnss/fulltext/te_1319_25.pdf

http://www.iaea.org/inis/aws/fnss/fulltext/0412_7.pdf

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf62.htm

http://www.dae.gov.in/publ/3rdstage.pdf

http://www.dailyexcelsior.com/web1/03jan05/busi.htm#3

I would also consider what Rod Adams writes at:

Yucca Mountian: Right Answer, Wrong Question
http://www.atomicinsights.com/FTROU/02-02-02.html

Nuclear Waste Mountain: Unnecessary Sense of Urgency
http://www.atomicinsights.com/mar96/Nothing.html

Regards,

Paul W. Primavera
Matthew66 said…
I have always thought that reprocessing was a better use of resources than direct disposal. However, an argument that is often used against reprocessing is that it that it is more costly to source fissile material from reprocessed fuel rods than from freshly mined uranium. This is perfectly true, however, I would argue that the cost of reprocessing should be viewed as a cost of disposal, and that the proceeds from selling the recovered fissile material on the fuel market are an offset to that cost. Most of the world use borosilicate glass to isolate the non-recyclable waste products, another substance Synroc (a ceramic) developed at the Australian National University in the 1970's is currently being used by the US government for isolation of military wastes. Both would appear to be mature technologies. The entry of the US into the reprocessing market can only serve to improve the processes used and lower the cost of reprocessing.
Personally, I have always been a vocal advocate of developing advanced recycling technologies. That we can now talk above a whisper about closing the nuclear fuel cycle is a delightful development. But a robust research and development program for recycling must be in addition to, not in place of, the current Yucca Mountain program.

This potential new proposal absolutely must not be allowed to stall the momentum of licensing and opening a central repository.

The first, most obvious reason is that even if we recycle fuel, we will still need a central repository for high level and defense waste.

Second, as Eric mentioned, the federal government has a responsibility to remove used fuel from operators’ sites as soon as possible. As long as the government defaults on its 1998 obligation to begin removing used fuel from plant sites, we are all paying twice. Our first checks are written as ratepayers as we contribute to the Nuclear Waste Fund for each kW-hour produced. Second, for all the fuel that should have been removed beginning in 1998, utilities must pay for continued onsite storage. One way or another, that additional cost shows up in our electric bills. Unless, of course, your utility is one that has or is settling a lawsuit with the government to recoup those storage costs. But, it’s still not a freebie—those settlements are paid by our tax dollars.

And the truth is, advanced reprocessing plants that would substantially increase the efficiency of the fuel cycle and the repository are at least fifteen years away.

Last, a “take title” approach would be certain to delay the building of new plants. As a pro-nuclear advocate the most difficult issue I have to address with concerned citizens is used fuel. Sure, I know that fuel disposition is a political problem and not a technical one. And I’d feel safer with a used-fuel-filled cask decorating my backyard than I would with a large natural gas pipeline running under my house. But no matter what I or others say, most communities are uncomfortable housing used fuel indefinitely. If local citizens are reasonably confident that the federal government will act in good faith to remove the fuel as promised, I am certain that there will be little significant opposition to companies that seek licenses for new plants. On the other hand, if the government begins backtracking, changing course, and ultimately delaying site removal, citizens will understandably wonder if used fuel will ever leave their community. And that is a situation that is ripe for anti-nuclear extremists to whip up a frenzy of Congressional letter-writing campaigns.

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