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Productively Discussing Used Nuclear Fuel

wippAn interesting comment by NRC Chairman-designate Allison Macfarlane at her confirmation hearing yesterday – which was very uncontentious, by the way – was the comment that only the United States has a deep geologic repository for nuclear materials – The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, N.M., which stores transuranic waste from defense sources.

WIPP figured prominently in the work of the Blue Ribbon Commission, because it was a working example of the consent-based approach for siting a used fuel repository – meaning that its community wanted it there, clearing the way for an uncontroversial opening and operation of the facility.

Consent-based siting of consolidated storage facilities is a feature of the commission’s report that has gotten attention in Congress. That’s partly why Senators wanted to talk about it with Macfarlane, who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission,  even though the NRC’s role beyond licensing interim storage facilities would  be limited. (You can watch a Senate hearing about interim storage sites here.)

Here’s a bit from an editorial in The Washington Post about the blue-ribbon commission and used nuclear fuel (and interim storage sites and Yucca Mountain):

The Yucca project, which still ought to be saved, is the object of ongoing litigation, and some in the House are trying to restore its funding. But a national blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste recently pointed out that Congress can do a lot of good in the absence of a final decision on Yucca. Lawmakers should create a new, independent ­nuclear-waste authority with access to the billions of dollars the government collects from electricity customers to deal with spent fuel. That authority should have the power to develop interim, centralized storage sites that use dry-cask storage, which is safer than cooling pools. At the same time, it should apply a new method of siting permanent disposal projects — more than one will probably be needed — and include local officials in the process.

That’s how ideas get traction.

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Still – WIPP the only such repository?

It is, but others are coming.

Finland has already started to build Onkalo, which is designed to take waste over a period of 100 years and then store it for at least 100,000 years, safe from population, fire, flood and other risks. France plans a similar project in Bure in the country's east.

The story has some interesting details on Onkalo:

Construction workers at Onkalo have nearly finished the 5 km tunnel that will spiral down to a depth of about 400 meters to a network of repositories that will start storing waste from 2020.

Posiva, owned by Finnish utilities Fortum and Teollisuuden Voima, is due to apply for its final stage of construction this year. Its total costs are estimated at 3.3 billion euros ($4.1 billion).

Bure is less far along, but the story points out that opposition to the French repository has dimmed over time. And there is a section on Yucca Mountain. Macfarlane herself wrote a book in 2006 making a geologist’s argument against the repository, but the NRC’s role in the repository is to license it, not set policy regarding it. So we’ll see how that goes. Interesting article – good job by Terhi Kinnunen (handling the Finnish side of things, I’d guess) and Muriel Boselli.

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This paragraph was amusing:

Most Finns are either supportive or neutral on nuclear energy. Analysts say pragmatism, a tradition of consensus politics and the Finnish parliament's decision to outlaw the export and import of nuclear waste have kept the nuclear policy on track.

That sounds a little begrudging, doesn’t it? – “supportive or neutral” – but we’ll take it. Finland means to add three more reactors to the four it has already. It generates about 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy. A Gallup poll taken in 2010 (before the accident at Fukushima Daiichi) showed 48% of Finns had a positive view of nuclear power and only 17% were negative – I guess 35% are the neutrals. See the World Nuclear Association page on Finland for more.

There’s actually a fair amount percolating on the used fuel front, which had become quiescent after Yucca Mountain shuttered. We can credit some of that to the Blue Ribbon Commission

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

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