Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The What Where When of Used Nuclear Fuel

fig43 Ever since Yucca Mountain succumbed – well, almost succumbed – to the Obama administration’s uncertainties about it, the question of  used nuclear fuel has been a bit of a question mark.

Hmmm, maybe that’s misleading. The fuel currently rests in pools or in dry storage casks, mostly at the plants. It’s been doing that for years without issue. A central repository would be ideal, as overseeing one of anything is per se better than overseeing multiple instances of essentially the same thing. (We’re simplifying, of course – radiant matter is handled differently across industries – but Yucca was It for commercial nuclear plants.)

It’s not quite a case of keeping the Brain People of Antares safe when they visit an empty earth a million years from now – they’re tough hombres and can take care of themselves quite nicely, plus they sprinkle their morning cereal with plutonium – but a logistical issue.

And it’ll get taken up again at some point, whether the answer is Yucca Mountain or some other locale. The law more or less requires it – the U.S. has contracts to move the material to a central repository.

But for now, what?

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is proposing to double the period that nuclear power plants can store spent fuel on site to 40 years, as plans to build a permanent federal repository stall.

The rule would formalize a site-by-site exemption the commission has used when nuclear plants, including those owned by Dominion Resources Inc. and Progress Energy Inc., applied to renew waste storage licenses for longer than 20 years.

Which means the NRC is codifying what it’s already doing. It’s not ideal but it is realistic. In terms of plant and public safety, it’s non-controversial. (And there are some non-plant sites that store casks, too.)

If you want to read more about dry cask storage, which is an exceedingly well developed piece of kit, go here.

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We did frown at this a bit:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has called for a panel to recommend a way forward for the U.S. nuclear waste, looking at potential waste sites and reprocessing the fuel to reduce its radioactivity and volume.

We real-l-l-l-y want to see the kick off of this commission. While most such commissions are, at best, efforts to kick-the-can of a difficult issue down the road a piece, this one has real potential to to remove uncertainties and set a course for the future. And we’ll be exceptionally frustrated if it doesn’t get rolling until the Brain People of Antares can be members of it.

But that’s just us and our impatience: we do expect energy issues, including this one, to start popping again when the climate change bill returns to the fore.

A dry cask. Bigger than you’d think, isn’t it?

3 comments:

Paul Studier said...

There already is an NRC licensed facility for 40,000 tons of spent fuel for 40 years. This would provide an alternative to on site storage or on sites where the power plant is decommissioned. See http://web.archive.org/web/20071227225023/http:/www.privatefuelstorage.com/ . Unfortunately, congress blocked it, so the only thing that actually exists is the license.

Joffan said...

Interesting Paul. NRC's letter issuing the licence is here. Do you have a reference to the Congressional action to block it?

I'm amused by the use of an apparently naked female silhouette for scale on the cask picture (perhaps that was the idea). At her distance from such a cask, what would the levels of radiation be if the cask was loaded with typical 10-year-old spent fuel?

Paul Studier said...

Go to the link I posted and click on "News" and you will find:

Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians and Private Fuel Storage Seek Reversal of Interior Department Rulings

On July 17, 2007, PFS and the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians filed a complaint, in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, against officials of the U.S. Department of Interior for their decisions of September 2006 disapproving the PFS-Goshute lease and the use of public lands for an Intermodal Transfer Facility.

The Claim asks the Court to vacate the DOI decisions and require DOI to reconsider both issues on a strict timetable, this time adhering to the Department's own regulations as well as other federal laws and policies.


Congress could allow it just by passing a bill. Previously, Private Fuel Storage tried to build 30 miles of railroad, but congress declared the area a wilderness to prevent this. Sorry, don't have a reference for that handy. In any case, it took 8 years to license the site, and any new site would have to start an application from scratch.