A letter to the editor in this morning's edition of the San Jose Mercury News taking issue with my op-ed that appeared in the paper earlier this week:
Nowhere in Eric McErlain's entire opinion piece was any mention of the most troublesome aspect of nuclear power: what to do with the toxic waste (Op-ed, May 8). Preoccupied with global warming and other potential threats, we have lost sight of the real radioactive material seeping into the groundwater in Hanford, Wash., and the inconclusive debate about Nevada as a nuclear dump.I have a couple of points before we get to the heart of Ms. Erickson's question.
Certainly the costs of fossil fuels are great. But we cannot conduct an intelligent debate about energy sources until we include the poisonous waste products from nuclear power plants, which must be secured and contained for hundreds of years.
I hope Ms. Erickson knows that I didn't deliberately ignore the issue of nuclear waste, what we think is more properly termed "used nuclear fuel". Though the Mercury-News was kind enough to accept my piece, it did come with a 650-word limit, meaning that there were only so many questions we could address.
Second, it's patently unfair and deceptive to include Yucca Mountain and Hanford in the same sentence. The waste left over at Hanford was not produced by commercial nuclear reactor operations, but is rather is the result of nuclear weapons production.
The used nuclear fuel that the industry believes could be safely stored at a deep geologic repository at Yucca Mountain is first stored in a used fuel pool for cooling, and then removed and placed in dry cask storage -- a process completely unrelated with what's happening at Hanford. For more on used nuclear fuel and dry cask storage, click here.
Finally, I think it's important to address this section of Ms. Erickson's letter directly:
Certainly the costs of fossil fuels are great. But we cannot conduct an intelligent debate about energy sources until we include the poisonous waste products from nuclear power plants, which must be secured and contained for hundreds of years.Indeed, this is correct, used nuclear fuel currently does need to be "secured and contained". However, it's important to point out that unlike fossil plants that burn coal and natural gas, nuclear power plants must account for 100 percent of their waste products.
Meanwhile, coal and natural gas plants are free to emit NOx, SOx and Carbon without having to account for the cost to our environment. By foreclosing the possibility of new nuclear build, Ms. Erickson would force California and other states to rely more heavily on gas and coal-fired electric generation (for a look at the pipeline of power plant construction in California, click here). For more on an EU study on the external costs of energy, including a shocking statistic on the external costs of fossil fuels, click here.
Now to the heart of Ms. Erickson's question, Yucca Mountain. I'd suggest reading a speech our CEO Skip Bowman gave at MIT earlier this year that specifically addresses the concerns about used nuclear fuel:
The final concern I want to address—the real elephant in the room—what about used fuel? What are our plans and policies?In the end, we believe the difficulties with Yucca Mountain are purely political, and have nothing to do with science. For more, I'd suggest that anyone who is interested should keep an eye on a hearing on Yucca Mountain scheduled for May 16 by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
People who are opposed to nuclear energy say that “we don’t know what we’re going to do with the high-level radioactive waste.”
In truth, we do know what we’re going to do with it.
We’re going to follow the course recommended for decades by independent scientific organizations around the world, including our own National Academy of Sciences.
We’re going to isolate this material deep underground in stable geological formations, in a dry environment, remote from people.
We have just such a place, at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
In 2002, a presidential finding and bipartisan affirmation by both houses of Congress determined that the Yucca Mountain site was suitable for long-term isolation of used nuclear fuel. Those steps cleared the way for the Department of Energy to start developing the application necessary to obtain an NRC license to build and operate the facility.
The determination in 2002 that Yucca Mountain was a suitable site was based on 20 years and $6 billion of scientific investigation.
The technical and scientific work included excavation of an underground laboratory at Yucca Mountain to evaluate how the geologic formation responds to certain operating conditions.
Nothing has emerged so far during the scientific investigation that would disqualify the Yucca Mountain site in any way.
In my discussions with people about used nuclear fuel management, I find many who believe that the Department of Energy is simply going to bury the used nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain and walk away, trusting in the site’s natural geological characteristics and the engineered safety features of the containers to contain the waste by-products.
That’s not the plan, and it never has been the plan.
This facility will remain open and closely monitored for 100 to 300 years. The law requires an unspecified period of retrievability. NRC regulations require an ongoing confirmatory R&D program to verify the original assumptions based on new data and scientific development. And the Department of Energy’s Final Environmental Impact Statement describes this plan.
This period of monitoring, retrievability and confirmatory R&D should create confidence among the citizens of Nevada, and among all our nation’s citizens, that the repository is performing as designed, that public safety is assured and that the environment is protected. If there ever is a problem, the waste packages can be removed, and the problem corrected.
Extended monitoring and the ability to retrieve the casks also will allow us to recover the energy content in the fuel if it becomes cost-effective to do so, or if we choose to reprocess used fuel in order to reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste.
UPDATE: My colleague, Lisa Stiles-Shell, who actually wrote her Masters thesis at M.I.T. on the fuel at Hanford, offers the following:
Commercial power reactor fuel and Hanford spent fuel are completely different in design, function, and condition. Because of these differences (cladding, fuel form, storage conditions) Hanford fuel is much more challenging to stabilize than commercial fuel.And finally, for the statement that NEI made on the Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act back on April 5, which NEI described as a "very positive step," click here.
Technorati tags: Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Power, Used Fuel, Energy, Technology, Electricity, Yucca Mountain