While we debate about building new nukes, waste builds — and builds up — at the ones we already have.

The tsunami-induced nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex has sparked renewed debate about nuclear power’s future. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland have decided the risk ain’t worth the juice and have announced plans to end their nuclear power programs. No such decision appears imminent in the United States although it is unclear if any new plants will get built.

History as Prelude?

Should nukes be part of our energy future? That question will surely be debated for some time. But what about the spent fuel from reactors? Where is that in the debate?

The leaked radiation at the Fukushima plant didn’t come from the reactors alone. A failure to keep water circulating in pools storing spent fuel rods led to meltdowns, fires, and ultimately sizable releases of radioactivity. And today, some 87 days after the disaster began, plant operators at the Tokyo Electric Power Company are still struggling to stabilize the spent fuel pools.

The storage pool failures at Fukushima are highly relevant to America. The United States currently has about 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. More than two-thirds of that waste is stored in storage pools [pdf] much like those at Fukushima. The rest is locked up in dry cement casks that are generally deemed safer because they are air-cooled (not water-cooled) and less susceptible to sabotage.

Now, two new reports — one from a subcommittee of President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future and the other by Robert Alvarez, a former adviser at the Energy Department now a scholar at the Institute of Policy Studies — recommend that we can and should do better.

We Didn’t Plan It This Way

Initially, all our spent fuel was supposed to be reprocessed for use in breeder reactors [pdf] and so there’d be no need for long-term storage or disposal. But because of proliferation concerns and economic considerations, reprocessing was abandoned (under President Carter). In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act laid out a new plan: In exchange for a fee collected from nuclear power plant operators, the federal government agreed to take the fuel off the hands of the power companies for permanent storage/disposal.

That, of course, did not happen; the country has simply not had the political will (I’m pretty sure we have the technical know-how). And so, in the words of the Blue Ribbon Commission, “current storage arrangements have evolved in an ad hoc fashion,” and “with a few minor exceptions, all commercial spent fuel is being stored by default at the sites of the reactors where it was generated,” awaiting the government to decide what to do.

65,000 metric tons of spent fuel in the United States … most of it, according to Alvarez, in pools containing “some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet” … stored in an ad hoc fashion. With more on the way. Our current fleet of 104 commercial nuclear plants generates an additional 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel annually. With Obama’s cancellation of the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, there’s no end in sight.

Time for Change

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s draft report does not find the current storage system unsafe per se, but recommends that a more efficient arrangement would involve establishing “one or more consolidated interim storage facilities,” where spent fuel could be stored in dry casks for a period of decades to a century or more, awaiting final disposal, including possible reprocessing.

Alvarez is a lot less sanguine. He notes that several fuel storage sites are in seismically active earthquake zones) and others, such as the Indian Point facility in New York (about 38 miles from Manhattan), are near high-population areas where an accident could have tragic and economically devastating consequences. Alvarez calls for a 10-year program to move spent fuel into dry cask storage. “The cost of fixing America’s nuclear vulnerabilities may be high,” he writes, “but the price of doing too little is incalculable.”

This isn’t the first time experts have called for upgrading our system for storing spent fuel. (See here and here.) Not much has ever happened on this front, so it remains to be seen what, if anything, will happen now.

I don’t know about you, but “spent nuclear fuel” and “ad hoc” don’t mix well in my book. So here’s a simple proposal: Until we decide on what to do with nuclear waste and then show some follow-through, let’s shelve all talk of new nuclear plants. Call it the Waste Plan Before New Nukes Plan.


  1. blackeneth
    June 16, 2011, 3:56 pm

    “The Waste Plan before New Nukes Plan” is the current policy, and it has been for about 30 years. Opponents of nuclear power feign interest in nuclear power “once the waste problem is solved.” Then, of course, there is no waste solution that is agreeable to them.

    We should stop calling it nuclear waste. Those materials are actually a valuable resource, that can be reprocessed to produce new fuel.

    The problem with nuclear power is that it takes an investment of $10 billion dollars and 20 years to build it. Few utilities can afford that kind of capital investment. The cost and delay are driven higher by the poor political environment.

    I’m sure technical research could develop cheaper, inherently safe, nuclear reactors that could be installed quickly. Say, modular nuclear reactors – with a negative temperature coefficient, so if they loose coolant, the reaction stops and the equipment doesn’t melt. Liquid thorium reactors are also another promising design. But given the political environment, who would invest in these designs?

  2. William Dix
    June 11, 2011, 3:23 pm

    I would say that the current approach needs a serious rethink.

    Currently the U.S. does not reprocess spent nuclear fuel doing so would reduce the amount of nuclear waste held in “short term” storage facilities. I will also point out that materials that we consider currently to be unusable waste. May not be considered to be so a few centuries from now. Particularly if one bears in mind factors such as long term technological change.

    Another issue is that the U.S. has not built a long term storage facility as of yet and the Yucca Mountain facility has been trapped in a political morass and slated for cancellation. A decision which had more to do with politics than any consideration of cost benefit and risk. One thing that should be considered is that most of the highly radioactive waste consists of relatively short lived isotopes which will burn themselves out in a relatively short term time.

    A final point a simple way of dealing with nuclear waste may be to drill into a subduction zone and sending waste into Earth’s own natural recycling system. Given the time frames involved any remnants of the waste that may finally emerge will be very thoroughly mixed in with other materials.

  3. David Braun
    Washington, DC
    June 9, 2011, 10:18 am

    How can we get the message out about this?