D.C. Circuit on nuclear waste disposal fees

by Walter Olson on November 20, 2013

Judge Laurence Silberman, writing for the panel on the Yucca Mountain case: “The [Energy] Secretary’s position is so obviously disingenuous that we have no confidence that another remand would serve any purpose.” [NARUC v. Dept. of Energy, PDF via Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E]

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Heh | BeagleZoom
11.20.13 at 8:26 am

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1 Leland D. Davis 11.20.13 at 10:49 am

This have been brewing for a long time. Having invested large sums of money in the Yucca Mountain project, at the instigation of Harry Reid, it was abandoned, after the feds had been promising that they would take the high level waste from generators, and charging fees up front for this service that they were going to provide. And while I have heard from one DOE employee that the WIPP facility in the South West might be a viable possibility, no other disposal site has really been selected. Exacerbating the problem is that, courtesy of Jimmy Carter, who thought that fuel reprocessing would lead to nuclear weapons proliferation, we do not reprocess fuel, meaning in part that we end up with far more high level waste than we would otherwise. Never mind that the experience of the French, who reprocess their fuel from power reactors, suggests that the weapons proliferation fears are very much overblown. So we need a place to put the stuff. For the amount of power generated (read about coal ash and air pollution some time), not much waste is generated in nuclear power production, but most people do not want to live next to a high level waste repository. Other nations have solved the technical aspects of high level waste disposal, we also have the technology, what is really needed now is a solution to the political problems.

2 Kurt 11.20.13 at 12:27 pm

Best line is the quote from Chicago: “Give ‘em the old Razzle Dazzle”

3 Don 11.20.13 at 7:51 pm

Part of the reason Jimmy Carter decided to not reprocess fuel rods is that the plutonium in the fuel pellets is trapped in the metallic structure of the pellet. It can’t get into the environment unless it melts.

The fuel rods are only high level waste for about 200-300 years, when the cesium and strontium have decayed away. At that point they have about the same amount of radioactivity as they did when they were installed in the reactor.

I suppose, once the cesium and strontium have decayed away, the pellets could technically be reloaded into a new reactor at that point.

4 Stewart Peterson 11.21.13 at 8:35 pm

Don,

They could be reloaded into a new reactor right now; fission products don’t actively get in the way of the nuclear reaction, and since 95% of a commercial fuel rod is not reacting anyway, use of the fuel rod just increases the quantity of this “inert” component. The line between “fuel” and “waste” depends on the fuel efficiency of the reactor, so any reactor that uses the same fuel rod materials and geometry, and which can go critical with the amount of fuel left in the fuel rod, can use the old rods. Canadian reactors are particularly good at this.

The limiting factor is damage to the crystal structure of the fuel material by the conversion of uranium to fission products, which have different chemical properties and don’t bond to the same crystal structure in the same way. Without chemical processing of the old fuel, a few cycles through a few different reactors would reduce the ceramic pellets to powder, which reduces the structural integrity of the fuel rod. This sort of processing is done all the time everywhere but in the US.

So, yeah, it’s not a technical problem. The biggest indictment, I think, of the idea that there is such a thing as a nuclear waste “problem” is the willingness of the electric utilities to store the stuff on their own sites indefinitely. If it was so difficult to manage it, people wouldn’t already be doing so.

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