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Senator Domenici on Used Fuel and Yucca Mountain

Is the nation beginning to head a new direction on how to manage its used nuclear fuel? Here's the direction Senator Domenici thinks we should go:
The Senate’s longtime champion of nuclear energy said today that other communities, not just Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, should be considered for storing the nation’s nuclear waste.

New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici’s comments this morning reflect Washington’s deep frustration over the Department of Energy’s endless delays at Yucca Mountain. The nuclear industry has quietly been soliciting other communities as potential hosts for a repository, and Domenici said he would introduce legislation that would free up money from the Yucca Mountain account to do just that. Doing so would represent a major policy shift on Yucca. The multi-billion-dollar Yucca fund is considered sacred, having been built from fees collected from ratepayers in states with nuclear energy.


Domenici’s comments came as both Senate and House appropriators this week are considering Energy’s budget requests for the coming year. The department promises to meet its summer deadline for submitting the long-awaited license for the waste dump at Yucca.

In his comments, Domenici said he no longer believes focusing solely on a permanent repository in Nevada is the way to go, fearing the Yucca only strategy that does not include efforts to recycle waste is “deeply flawed.” “I believe this path will prove to be the highest cost solution and it fails to take advantage of recycling,” Domenici said. “We should pursue a comprehensive waste strategy led by an approach to recycle spent nuclear fuel with the remaining waste to be put in either Yucca Mountain or another suitable site such as deep salt formations,” such as a site in New Mexico that now stores less toxic waste.

We'll see where this goes.


Anonymous said…
It boils down to $100 billion to complete Yucca Mountain or maybe $40 billion to build a complete recycle infrastructure, including actinide burners. Plus the recycled energy content of just current reactors' spent fuel could fuel $1 trillion of electricity at wholesale.

Glad to see one of the most enlightened of our political class saying as much in public.

Joe Somsel
Kirk Sorensen said…
They ought to offer some of that money as a "bounty" for developing reactor technologies that actually destroy the long-lived transuranic nuclides the most effectively.

In such a case I think chloride reactors would beat the pants off of solid-fueled sodium-cooled reactors.

My modest proposal:

1. Shut down Yucca and devote the funding in the waste fund to the development of liquid-chloride and liquid-fluoride reactors. Chloride reactors would be used to destroy transuranics and breed U233 from thorium. Fluoride reactors would start with U233 and thereafter consume only thorium without producing transuranics.

2. Fluorinate spent nuclear fuel currently in storage. Remove uranium through further fluorination (from UF4 to UF6) and either send it for re-enrichment or convert it to UO2 for low-level disposal. Remove transuranics from the fluoride mixture by reduction with aluminum metal, which was recently demonstrated by French research to effectively separate TRU-fluorides from fission product fluorides.

3. Send fission product fluorides to a monitored storage site for ~300 years until they decay to background levels of radiation.

4. Convert metallic TRUs (obtained by reduction) to TRU-chlorides and destroy them through fission in a chloride reactor. Chloride reactors are capable of very hard spectrums and have inherent safety features not found in solid-core fast reactors.

5. Breed U233 from thorium during the destruction of TRUs in the chloride reactor and use them to start thermal-spectrum, fluoride reactors that use thorium as an essentially unlimited energy supply.

Such a scheme would destroy long-lived waste while transitioning to a fuel source (thorium) that does not produce the transuranics in the first place.
Joffan said…
Joe Somsel, you must have been to the imaginary numbers store for that $100 billion figure to complete Yucca Moutain repository. I wouldn't call Yucca a great option but stupid inflated numbers are for the anti-nukes.
Anonymous said…
There was a time when if a state needed to build a new prison that communities would fight tooth and nail not to get picked to host it out of concerns over the city's image (in the form of lower property values) and public safety (what would happen if a vicious cat molester were to escape?). Nowadays municipalities bite and scratch to get chosen because of the jobs and business they bring in. Somehow the process of choosing a spent fuel repository became structured to guarantee state opposition. On the other hand, to my knowledge WIPP was built with a minimum of state fuss. I wonder if the difference is that Pete Domenici was familiar with Tom Sawyer and his picket fence and packaged WIPP as an opportunity (read "pork barrel project") rather than as something that was going to be foisted on them.
Anonymous said…
I've personally never liked the the Yucca Mountain storage idea.

I view the nuclear 'waste' as fuel to be used in the future.
Anonymous said…

The projected FINAL cost of Yucca Mountain has been steadily escalating over the years. the last OFFICIAL estimate was, what - $60 billion ? with no end in sight.

Call the final dollar amount what you will, but a reasonable conclusion is that recycle infrastructure will not cost more and is very likely to cost significantly less than Yucca Mountain.


The prime requirement for an actinide burner is a hard neutron spectrum. There are many ways to achieve that but liquid metal designs have the most operating experience and technical development. It does not appear that one needs a big reactor to deal with the actinides either. I've seen estimates of 5 to 60 MWth (from memory) and the thermal conditions need not be a stretch for generation efficiency and economics of power generation.

I'm neutral on the actual reactor design but I'd prefer the lowest technical risk. DoE, the Japanese, and others are funding R&D on optimal cycles so the issue is still open.

Joe Somsel
Kirk Sorensen said…
The prime requirement for an actinide burner is a hard neutron spectrum.

Agreed Joe, and you won't find a much harder spectrum (at least in a critical reactor) than a chloride reactor.

There are many ways to achieve that but liquid metal designs have the most operating experience and technical development.

Yes, and that experience has taught us many things. Sodium is still violently reactive with air and water and doesn't operate hot enough to go to an efficient gas turbine cycle. Fuel fabrication is difficult and isotopic inventories are always uncertain. And most troubling of all, it is very difficult to build sodium-cooled fast reactors with decent negative temperature coefficients without "softening" the spectrum considerably, which compromises the destruction of transuranics.

Sodium-cooled fast breeders are a dead-end and should be abandoned. The chloride reactor is the way to go for transuranic destruction.
Anonymous said…
I have been told that the Russians refer to their high level nuclear waste as "national treasure". Not all propoganda is bad. It certainly is time for this country to recognize the benefits of nuclear waste.
Matthew B said…
There are many ways to achieve that but liquid metal designs have the most operating experience and technical development.

Both Japan and France have tried commercial ventures with sodium coolant and failed.

The only molten salt work I'm aware of is from 60 years ago in relation to nuclear aircraft. I see a lot of potential that hasn't been hashed out enough to determine it's commercial merit.
Sophie said…
"On the other hand, to my knowledge WIPP was built with a minimum of state fuss."

Your knowledge is incorrect. New Mexicans fought tooth and nail against WIPP.
Anonymous said…
Ah, yes, another congressman, who should know better, proposes another scheme on how to deal with spent nuclear fuel disposal. First, Sen. Reid proposes the federal government take over storage at present reactor sites (for how long, he does not say) and pay for continued storage from the Nuclear Waste Fund.
Now comes Sen. Domenici, who is convinced "spent" fuel is really an asset that should be reprocessed, using in some way the same Fund.
Senators: please level with us that the $21 billion supposedly in the Fund has already been spent on unrelated government "needs." Also please tell your colleagues they won't have access to the roughly $500 million "surplus" fee revenue they habitually divert to other activities each year.
Meanwhile, the nuclear utilities do the responsible thing of carefully storing the spent fuel on-site, despite the government contracts they hold that say the government will remove it.
Anonymous said…
A couple of key points. Every possible fuel cycle needs some type of repository. Yucca Mountain can be ventilated and is ideal for materials that have high heat generation or that one might reasonably want to recover in the future. A site near WIPP to store civilian waste would be ideal for materials that one wants near-perfect isolation for, but that do not generate heat and which one does not ever potentially want to recover.

On costs, what really matters is the amount the electricity consumer must pay to fully fund the ultimate disposition of spent fuel. Right now for direct disposal at Yucca Mountain this cost is 0.1 cents per kilowatt hour. Current reprocessing technology would be much more expensive, most likely requiring that the fee be increased to 0.3 to 0.5 cents per kilowatt hour. The best thing to do is to take the time needed to improve the economics and effectiveness of recycle technologies, and implement them when it makes economic sense to do so.

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