“Nuclear Waste: Liability or Asset?

Occasionally, I get a question from my column like: “What do we do about the nuclear waste from those nuclear power plants?” Before I answer the question, I have to ask what they mean by waste. It is not a trick question but I do need to understand what they actually know or what they have heard and just repeating someone else’s sound byte. Once we are both talking about the same radioactive waste, I can clarify that it is not waste but a by-product of a nuclear reactor. Those by-products are just another form of a raw material or asset with potential value. To call it a waste or radioactive waste is a misuse of the word waste.

Let’s take a look at another raw material; oil. When oil is just sitting in the ground it is absolutely useless because it is not yet a valuable resource. Once the oil is extracted, it is still of limited value until it is refined into many by-products. My point is that the biosphere has lots of raw materials and uranium, thorium and other elements are all just raw minerals that have no value until they are re-purposed as a resource. In the case of today’s commercial nuclear power plants, 99% of what is considered waste is still a source of energy for an advanced molten salt reactor (MSR). At most, only about 1% of all the unused fuel is made up of radioactive actinides that have not been commercialized yet. This relatively minute amount of material should be stored in a safe place, preferably where those mischief people can’t get to it.

We need to call the alleged waste what it really is: unused nuclear fuel. Another term that is used to reference this unused fuel is spent nuclear fuel. Another question asked is: “why doesn’t the reactor consume all the fuel?” That has to do with the technology and metallurgy of the 1940’s and 50’s. Those early reactor designs used a solid uranium fuel encased in zirconium clad rods and placed in the reactor. After about 3 years, the zirconium starts too hardened with only 3% of the uranium fuel used up. Before they became brittle (and dangerous), they are replaced with newer solid fuel rods.

Currently, all the unused nuclear fuel (97% unused) from each nuclear power plant (NPP) is stored at their site in two forms. The first 5 years, the unused portion of the fuel rod is cooled down in water pools. The rods are then removed and placed in a concrete/metal cask and stored above ground in a secured area on the plant site. Once placed in the cask, there is no need to transfer them to another location, temporary or permanent.

The ideal would be to build an advanced MSR at the existing NPP location and start using the ‘waste’ as fuel, which is a ~$39 billion asset. There is definitely no need to waste billions to build a interim retrievable underground storage facility for this asset as proposed between Carlsbad and Hobbs, NM. Andrews County, West Texas, has proposed to build an interim solution above ground storage for millions, not billions, of tax payer dollars.

The final solution for this unused fuel asset is to generate electricity or desalinate water with an MSR, which are now being developed in China and Canada, but not in the US. http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/WR-Plans-announced-for-New-Mexico-used-fuel-store-3004154.html

In the news, the final report on the WIPP accident has been issued and as I stated in previous articles – nothing to worry about. The facility will resume operations in 2016. If you want more details you can get them at this web site: http://wipp.energy.gov/wipprecovery/recovery.html

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