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About that Showdown at Yucca Mountain

Yucca MountainIssues in Science and Technology is a quarterly publication put out by the National Academy of Sciences, and in its newest issue, out this week, Luther Carter, Lake Barrett, and Kenneth Rogers author a critique of the Obama administration for its re-examination of U.S. policy on the back end of the fuel cycle. In fact, the authors of ‘Nuclear Waste Disposal: Showdown at Yucca Mountain’ [subscription required] don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The essay is a political polemic, and it fails to recognize the strategic advantages associated with centralized long-term management of used nuclear fuel.

Is U.S. policy on the back end of the fuel cycle ideal? Absolutely not. The United States needs a path forward for the long-term management of high-level radioactive waste from civilian and defense programs, but new nuclear plants will or will not be built on electricity demand fundamentals, not the political football that has been, and to some extent remains, Yucca Mountain. States have moratoria on building new nuclear plants by virtue of the government not having a repository for used nuclear fuel disposal, but there is widespread reconsideration of that ban in a number of those states. Alaska earlier this year overturned its moratorium. Industry’s safe and secure management of commercial reactor fuel is playing a role in this reconsideration by state legislatures.

There’s no denying that the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle is in a state of flux from a federal policy perspective. The future of Yucca Mountain is questionable; meanwhile, the administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is examining a range of policy options.

What is certain in policy consideration is that we will be securely storing used fuel in above-ground facilities for an extended period of time.

The nuclear energy industry supports a three-pronged, integrated used fuel management strategy:
  • managed long-term storage of used fuel at centralized, volunteer locations;
  • research, development and demonstration of advanced technology to recycle nuclear fuel;
  • and development of a permanent disposal facility
Long-term storage is a proven strategic element that allows time to redesign the nuclear fuel cycle in a way that makes sense for decades to come. Meanwhile, NRC’s recent final rulemaking on waste confidence represents an explicit acknowledgment by industry’s regulator of the ongoing safe, secure and environmentally sound management of used fuel at plant sites and or central facilities. Although spent fuel is completely safe and secure at plant sites, indefinite onsite storage is unacceptable.

The Blue Ribbon Commission must take the next step, and recommend forward-looking policy priorities for used fuel management. To date, the commission has demonstrated an awareness of the importance and magnitude of its task. The challenge is to recommend a used fuel management policy that can stand the test of time and enable the nation to take full advantage of the largest source of low carbon electricity.

- Everett Redmond, Director, Nonproliferation and Fuel Cycle Policy, NEI


Anonymous said…
Whatever the final resolution of YM, there is still an important Constitutional issue in play. And that is, can the Executive Branch disregard the law (NWPA) passed by Congress? I'd really like to see that addressed and answered by the courts. It is no less a question than whether or not the rule of law still holds. Upon it rests the foundation of our tripartite republican form of government.
Anonymous said…
Let's build a fuel recycling plant at Yucca Mt. Most of so-called "high level nuclear waste" – about 96% – is uranium, of which less than 1% is the fissile U-235 (often 0.4-0.8%); and up to 1% is plutonium. Both can be recycled as fresh fuel, saving up to 30% of the natural uranium otherwise required. The materials potentially available for recycling (but locked up in stored used fuel) could conceivably run the US reactor fleet of about 100 GWe for almost 30 years with no new uranium input.

The MOX plant in South Carolina takes in high level nuclear waste from the Russiam nuclear bomb program and reprocesses it into fuel useable in commercial nuclear reactors!

Unfortunately, U. S. Plants are barred from using this fuel. MOX fuel has been used safely and effectively for years in more than 30 reactors in Europe and Japan.
Carter, Barrett and Rogers

We have not objected to a reexamination of U.S. policy on spent fuel. We have objected to the Administration’s attempt to dictate the result of such an examination by a Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) even before the Commission has had an opportunity to examine all of the alternatives.

We acknowledge the legitimacy of the BRC, but not if it is hamstrung before it even begins. In fact, we note that "The Commission has an opportunity to broadly redefine the Yucca Mountain project to suggest how advantage might be taken of the repository's early potentialities and how uncertainties about its long-
term performance might be reduced." Also we state "a Yucca Mountain repository would be ideally suited to serve for monitored geologic storage of spent fuel, which ultimately could be retrieved if, say, fuel recycling should be economically attractive." One of the objectives of our article is to support the BRC as an independent objective body, unencumbered by political commitments.

We would be happy if " new nuclear plants will or will not be built on electricity demands fundamentals, not on the political football that has been, and to some extent remains, Yucca Mountain", but as long as there is no specific program for the long term disposal of nuclear waste we do not foresee widespread acceptance of new nuclear plants in the U.S. This is a matter of differing judgments, and we simply do not agree with Redmond's optimism, despite our strong support for existing and new nuclear power plants.

We don't deny, "What is certain in policy consideration is that we will be securely storing used fuel in above

ground facilities for an extended period of time.” but point out that extended is not sufficiently specific.

Finally, we can see no reason, other than political, to fail to take full advantage of the $10 Billion expended already and the enormous body of knowledge already acquired through the Yucca Mountain project in meeting "The challenge … to recommend a used fuel management policy that can stand the test of time and enable the nation to take full advantage of the largest source of low carbon electricity."
Anonymous said…
I read the Carter, Barrett, and Rogers article twice, and fairly closely, and wholeheartedly concur with the authors' response to this NEI Blog entry.

In my view, the article clearly sees the BRC as a means to salvage some value from Yucca Mountain, perhaps as an MRS facility with longer-term aspirations.

At present (and I think this is implicit in the article), the BRC is probably the most effective instrument for clarifying our nation's spent fuel disposal policy. It is entirely conceivable that their final recommendation will result in some kind of legislative action.

In my reading, the authors acknowledge this (as well as the value and legitimacy of the BRC), and hope to turn it to good account by protesting the fact that Secretary Chu and others have used "weasel words" ("This is not a siting commission") and political tactics to keep Yucca Mountain "off the table," including the table presided over by the BRC.

The authors are right. in my view, to point out, that this compromises in advance whatever recommendations the BRC may ultimately make, especially in light of the authors' central suggestion: that Yucca Mountain be kept on the table as a potential MRS facility, and perhaps even be used someday for its original purpose once the inherent uncertainties regarding the post-closure phase are reduced.

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