As small modular nuclear reactors emerge closer to reality In the US, the management and disposal of its highly radioactive waste should be a national priority. Forty years after the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, “there is no clear path to geological repository site, licensing and construction” for nuclear waste, according to a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine of the USA. report.
The good news is that there is already a clear strategy in place to manage and dispose of this highly radioactive material. The bad news is that the US government has yet to seriously follow through on that plan.
The National Academies report tells us that new or advanced reactor designs, the hoped-for saviors of the nuclear industry, will not save us from the need to build geological repositories, deep mine facilities for permanent nuclear waste disposal. In some cases, these new reactors can make it worse creating more waste that is more expensive to manage, new types of complex waste, or just more waste, period. Before we face that onslaught, we must first deal with the sheer volume of waste we have already produced.
The United States, which led the way in nuclear waste management in the 1980s and 1990s, has now fallen to the bottom of the pack. Some 88,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors remain stranded at reactor sites, and this number is increasing by about 2,000 metric tons each year. These 77 sites are located in 35 states and threaten to become de facto permanent disposal facilities. Without a geological repository, there is no way to move forward with the final disposal of this highly radioactive material. Storing it in pools and dry casks at the reactor sites is a temporary solution; it is safe for decades, but not the millennia required to isolate this radioactive material from the environment. The current US policy of indefinite storage at a centralized site is not a viable solution, as it transfers the cost and risk to future generations.
From now on, the nation must follow an already established path for a national repository for nuclear waste. both a 2012 Presidential Blue Ribbon Commission other to an international panel of experts Hosted by Stanford and George Washington Universities in 2018, it recommended a new independent waste management and disposal organization with funding outside of annual congressional appropriations and restrictive budget rules. The Blue Ribbon Commission called for the creation of a new federal corporation, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, for this organization, while the Stanford/GWU panel sought to replicate utility-owned but independent nonprofit organizations modeled in successful programs. in other countries, such as Sweden and Finland. Charges for nuclear-produced electricity fund these organizations, and they continue to be regulated by independent nuclear regulators. Both panels agreed on the need for an independent organization and finances.
The nations that followed this model are now addressing their nuclear waste problem. Swedish non-profit organization SKB announced last year What does he want build a deep geological repository at Östhammar for the permanent disposal of spent fuel from its commercial nuclear reactors. In Finland, construction of a geological repository began in May 2021, with plans to accept spent nuclear fuel in the mid-2020s. The Nordic countries are not the only ones making progress: France, Canada and Switzerland are pushing to apply for licenses to begin construction.
A US waste management organization must be a reliable and capable agency that is well funded and staffed. Sweden’s SKB sustained decades of effort in both public engagement and technical location analysis and is now reaping the benefits. The US Department of Energy, the enforcer of the designated repository established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, suffers instead from leadership and priorities that change with each administration, as well as a history of broken promises that have led to that the public has little confidence that it is up to the task. the job.
The overwhelming majority of successful offshore repository programs are run by independent corporations set up by the nuclear industry, outside of government. The industry is best positioned to manage the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, from the discharge of spent reactor fuel through storage, shipping and final geological disposal.
The consent of people living nearby is another universal requirement for establishing an accepted geological repository. Different motivations will underpin a community, tribe, or state’s decision to host one. A municipality may volunteer because of works that will last for the long life of the project (probably more than 100 years) or improvements to roads, schools, or other infrastructure. Some may feel the need to contribute to the greater good of society, especially if they benefited from electricity produced by nuclear power, as is the case in Sweden.
The 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission suggested that communities should decide for themselves what consent looks like to ensure a successful repository decision. In fact, Canada is following this approach. The two finalist communities in their siting process will handle the decision differently, one by referendum, the other by elected council decision.
The affected communities will need resources to hire their own experts to validate the claims made by the designated nuclear waste management agency. Sweden, in fact, not only provided such funds, but also money for public interest groups that opposed the repository, as part of the effort to produce a compelling security case for Östhammar.
Secured finances are also key. In the US, Congress has not appropriated funds for its Yucca Mountain nuclear waste program since 2010. In fact, Congress has botched both the collection process and taxpayer fund appropriation, now over $40 billion, which has made these funds essentially inaccessible. Outrageously, this money, actually collected from electricity ratepayers, not taxpayers, is being used to offset the national debt.
Even if the US starts today, it will take decades to locate, design and build a facility for the disposal of its nuclear waste stockpiles. That process must be accelerated now, before the reactors we need for their electricity run out of space for their growing inventories of highly radioactive waste.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the opinions expressed by the author(s) are not necessarily those of American scientist.