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Continuing The Myths and Facts Debate

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.

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 have a couple of points before we get to the heart of Ms. Erickson's question.

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?

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.
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.

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.

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Anonymous said…
Check this out:
Rod Adams said…
I have no problem at all believing that used nuclear fuel can be safely transported, stored, monitored and even retrieved from Yucca Mountain. I also believe there are probably dozens of other sites that could perform the same task if we care to spend a few decades and several billion dollars in scientific research designed to characterize the site for the next 10,000 years.

My problem is that NONE of that is necessary. That makes it a HUGE waste of money for the vast majority of the people that have to pay the bill.

Unfortunately for the people that are paying, the people that should most clearly understand and articulate the nature of the wasted money and effort are closely affiliated with the very people that will be on the receiving end of the contracts.

Used nuclear fuel is very compact and is already in a very stable form. That is especially true once the used fuel has spent a few years in a cooling pool.

Once you put the used fuel into a licensed storage container it can be safely stored above ground on what amounts to a slightly over engineered parking lot. Occasional inspection and security patrols are sufficient to ensure that the material is not disturbed and that the containers are doing their job.

If the storage area at a particular location gets full, the easiest thing to do is to expand the lot, but if that is not feasible another choice would be to build a few conveniently located facilities that could take the material from several nearby reactor complexes.

This above ground storage will keep the resource visible and easily available so that the motivation to find something profitable to do with the material remains strong. Even if Yucca is a retrievable site, it is remote enough so that it will be extremely expensive to move the material once again to a recycling facility. Constructing a recycling complex at that site is a non starter - it does not have one of the key resources needed to sustain a worker population or a factory operation - WATER.

One of the primary examples of the incredible cost that is yet to be spent for moving valuable used nuclear fuel to Yucca is the special purpose railroad that will be needed for the final part of the journey that does not already have a rail infrastructure.

If I remember the numbers correctly, there is about a 50-60 mile as the crow flies gap between the current rail head. In order to properly route the line around all natural and political barriers, the currently proposed route winds more than 300 miles through difficult desert terrain and is projected to cost more than $800 million dollars. (I think that figure is well below what the final cost will be.)

Enough of my rant. NEI - are you willing to discuss a better, far lower cost plan instead of sticking with a plan based on bad assumptions made more than 30 years ago?
Paul Primavera said…
I agree with Rod Adams, but I also think that the 24 billion dollars given by the US nuclear utility industry to the US government for a geological repository should all be returned.

If the govt doesn't come through on Yucca Mountain, then give the money back and let the utilities arrange for interim monitored and retrievable storage, spent fuel reprocessing, eventually geologic repository of whatever waste remains.

The money, Harry Reid - choke up the money!
Jim Hopf said…
The tens of billions of dollars for a repository sounds like a lot, but it actually only adds 0.1 cents/kW-hr to the cost of nuclear power. Expenses for merely shipping the fuel to (and retrieving it from) a constructed repository will be far less than that (i.e., negligible).

I'm aware that placing the fuel into long-term dry storage is a rational option, both economically and scientifically. I work in the drt storage business.

But politically, giving up on Yucca Mtn. it will be devastating to the industry, and the prospects for new plants. It will greatly add weight to the anti-nukes most effective notion, i.e., that "we still have no idea of what to do with the waste".

Giving up on Yucca will basically announce that, after 20-30 years, our best experts have "failed" to find a solution. This will lend great weight to the argument on the "insanity of building more nukes w/o any ideas for an acceptable waste solution". I know it's BS, but it will have great political traction among the ignorant.

Keep in mind that the entire 0.1 cent fee would not be avoided if Yucca went away. In addition to the money spent already, there is the fact that someday, a repository for the fission products (if nothing else) will be needed.

Ask the nuclear utilities if they would be willing to pay ~0.05 cents/kW-hr to have the waste issue be (correctly) perceived by the public to be solved, and to have their uncertainties concerning the waste be removed. It's a no-brainer; they would eagerly pay. So would I.

We have to keep our eye on the main objective, which is building as many new nuclear plants (in leiu of coal plants) as possible, in the next few decades. We must not do anything that detracts from that effort, and shelving Yucca most definitely would.

I sympathize with Paul's points, and perhaps it would have been better if we went with a private company from the start (to do all the work). Paul's post also understands that we will need Yucca at some point anyway, for some type of (fission product) waste. The point, however, is that any such move to go back to the drawing board will have all of the unacceptable political effects that I discussed above.

Get the thing done, put the waste in there, (correctly) declare the waste problem resolved, and pehaps go back and retrieve the fuel at some point in the future, if there are any reasons to do so.
Rod Adams said…

Both you and the industry are underestimating the ammunition that you give the opposition by insisting on transporting the used fuel from existing locations (which are owned by the utilities) to the most remote location that could be found.

Again, I have no question that the required actions can be done safely, but I know how the opposition works. By moving the material through so many jurisdictions you increase the probability of the opposition finding sympathetic legislators, judges, activists, etc. In order to stop a train, you only need to stop it somewhere on the journey and the longer the journey the more likely a stoppage.

There is also a huge opportunity to lay more costs and delays on the industry. Special trains, night only travel, huge escort contingents, etc. Take a look at what happens in Germany when they try to make a shipment of their used fuel to their recycler.

If I was in charge of a utility, I would announce regularly that the waste problem has been solved by a business case analysis that showed that we were paying the government to take away what should be considered a corporate asset. I would talk about how safe I felt with the way that we were currently handling the used material and storing it for future use. I would claim comfort with the idea of having the material in my very own backyard. I would take a cue from the President and "stand on" the material for a photo opportunity. (I hope that some people get the allusion to the recent lampooning by Cobert.)

Turn the issue into an asset. Take responsibility. Build shareholder value. Relieve the taxpayers of the burden of taking care of the byproducts of your successful and profitable manufacturing enterprise.

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