Geoff Russell: bizarre imaginings are blocking mass deployment of clean nuclear energy

Geoff wrote a pithy comment on the 2012 Nature article on advanced nuclear.

The characterisation of India's 1974 bomb as being “from reactor fuel” inviting “rampant nuclear-weapons proliferation” is unsupported by consequent events. There has not been rampant nuclear weapons proliferation. The invitation was clearly declined. John Mueller's “Atomic Obsession” goes into substantial detail in its explanations of why this hasn't happened, but the brute fact is that it hasn't. The fact that something is technically possible says nothing about its likelihood and the world now faces real climate dangers while being hamstrung in the deployment of our most scalable energy system because of bizarre imaginings. Had the US and other countries followed France and not been scared by these imaginings, they'd all be producing electricity for 90 grams of CO2/kWh instead of the current global average of 500 grams CO2/kWh and the world would be a much, much safer place with a far more manageable climate problem. We must not let over active imaginations stand in the way of a massive deployment of clean nuclear energy.

The whole article is worth a read.


Our nuclear waste disposal problem (not)

We don’t have a technical nuclear waste problem, but we sure have a political problem. To demonstrate, I’ll repeat a few paragraphs from a June 2013 post:

Negligible risks/impacts

dry cask 190x141As someone who works in the area of dry fuel storage, I can tell you that the answer is pretty obvious. The risks of spent fuel storage are utterly negligible, compared to other risks that society routinely faces in general, and in particular, compared to the risks associated with alternative (fossil) power generation options. No credible scenario for a significant release from dry storage casks exists. Even terrorist attacks would have a minimal public health consequence.

Spent fuel pool risks are also quite low, and neither the 5-year cask requirement nor a repository would do much to reduce those (small) risks, since almost all the heat in spent fuel pools is from the fuel younger than 5 years. The theory of spent fuel pool cladding melt or fire (in the extremely unlikely, hypothetical event of pool drainage) is quite dubious in the first place, and it is being addressed at the few plants where it is thought to be a potential concern. Also of note is the fact that the spent fuel pools did NOT release any significant amount of radioactivity at Fukushima.

The fact is that nuclear waste is generated in a miniscule volume and, unlike the wastes from fossil plants and other industries, it has always been safely and fully contained, has never been released into the environment, and has never caused any harm. Further evaluation needed? In my view, the health/environmental impact evaluation for long-term onsite storage of used fuel could be adequately given in one sentence:

“The public health risks and environmental impacts of long term onsite storage of used nuclear fuel are clearly orders of magnitude less than those of the fossil fueled power generation that would otherwise be used in place of nuclear generation.”

It’s clear that shutting the industry down until a repository is built will result in fossil fuels being used for most of the replacement power.  Even if new plant licensing and plant life extensions are suspended, for a long time, the result will eventually be some reduction in nuclear generation, and will result in some increase in fossil generation.

That was written by senior nuclear engineer Jim Hopf who just happens to be a specialist in this area. Nuclear engineers often refer to “waste” as SNF or Spent Nuclear Fuel. It is not actually spent, because in light water reactors less than 1% of the energy has been extracted in a the Jimmy Carter-mandated once-through fuel cycle. The remaining 99% is awaiting favorable politics to be turned into electricity in advanced reactors such as the IFR. So please do not bury the SNF (high value zero-carbon energy) where it will be difficult to retrieve.

Today I read some useful commentary on how the US got into this mess. I was reading the captioned dialog on Our Energy Policy, when I came to comments by an informed observer, Geoffrey Rothwell, who is Principal Economist, Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That’s the NEA of the OECD.  Geoffrey’s comments:

There are plenty of issues to discuss here, and it seems that the discussion is going off on tangents. For example, I believe that Elliot Taubman meant to say that it isn’t Department of Energy’s fault that Yucca Mountain was defunded. There is a general assumption that the US Government is the Administrative Branch and does not include Congress and the Judiciary; hence, the confusion.
Yucca Mountain was on track until the Environmental Protection (?) Agency determined that the design basis of 10,000 years wasn’t long enough to protect future human species from the present generation’s nuclear spent fuel. Thus, it increased the required design basis to 1,000,000 years. While I can imagine 10,000 years into the future (because we can look back at civilized humans over the last 10,000 years), I cannot (and I daresay no one can) design a facility to function as designed for a million years. This slowed down DOE’s license application to such an extent that the NRC was unable to license the design before the Obama-Reid-Pelosi administration took office in January 2009.

What was the implication? The Nuclear Waste Policy Act states in Section 148(d) of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, PL 97-425, 42 USC 10168: “(d) LICENSING CONDITIONS–Any license issued by the Commission for a monitored retrievable storage facility under this section shall provide that– (1) construction of such facility may not begin until the Commission has issued a license for the construction of a repository under section 115(d); (2) construction of such facility or acceptance of spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste shall be prohibited during such time as the repository license is revoked by the Commission or construction of the repository ceases;…” Therefore, without a license for a repository, no interim storage facility could be contemplated by the DOE; hence the waste confidence issue appeared. All Congress must do is strike Section 148(d), but that implies that Congress could do something. I don’t believe that Congress will do anything. If one looks at all previous legislation related to nuclear power policy since the Three Mile Island accident, it requires at least 3 sessions of Congress to act and then Congress will only pass such legislation after the elections, i.e., in lame duck sessions (where nuclear power policy cannot be used by non-incumbent candidates as a political weapon). Therefore, while Senate Bill 1240 is a good start, as long as Harry Reid is in power, nothing will happen. Is there a House counterpart? If not, why not? (Because House leadership wants to see Yucca Mountain licensed so as to avoid throwing $10B in Yucca Mountain characterization down a hole, literally).

Why isn’t reprocessing a solution? Unfortunately, when Congress passed the legislation in 1986 limiting characterization of reprocessing sites to Yucca Mountain (because more powerful members of Congress didn’t want the repository anywhere near their backyards (note, however, there is an operating repository in New Mexico at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, WIPP), the size of Yucca Mountain was limited to 80,000 metric tons of heavy metal (spent uranium fuel). But 80,000 MTHM doesn’t really have anything to do with the carrying capacity of a repository. The carrying capacity of a repository is limited by the ability of the surrounding geology to dissipate heat over the life of the facility. Once the repository is filled, radioactive decay increases the heat in the repository for hundreds of years before cooling begins. Reprocessing reduces the volume and tonnage of the waste, but doesn’t really change the heat load unless the various radio-isotopes can be separated into separate waste streams. This requires new reprocessing technologies and, unfortunately, there is little money to develop these technologies, which require international cooperation and development (every country with spent nuclear fuel is better off with more effectively reprocessing technologies, but no one country can afford to develop them).

On the other hand, the amount of waste that we are discussing is countable. What is uncountable is the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. Each gigawatt-year of nuclear electricity produces approximately 20 tons of waste (note 20 tons x 40 years x 100 reactors = 80,000 MTHM: Dave, will you check my math?). Given the weight of these 20 tons, the volume is one-third the size of a reactor core: a countable number. One gigawatt-year of coal electricity produces 1,000,000 tons of CO2 (note: 1M tons x 40 years x 100 gigawatts = 4 billion tons of CO2; there are approximately 5 milligrams of CO2 in 12oz can of soda; therefore, we would need to bury 200,000 cans of soda to sequester 1 ton of CO2, i.e., 800 trillion cans of soda; Dave, please check my math). I exaggerate to make the point that Carbon Capture and Storage is a myth and the Waste Isolation Pilot Project is a reality. Finally, climate change is a reality, Hurricane Sandies don’t care whether you believe in climate change: they will flood the New York subway whether you believe in climate change or not. The issue is whether it is easier to manage spent nuclear fuel or CO2. What do you think?

Regarding the quantity of SNF, Geoffrey says it is “countable”. Another adjective is “minuscule”. 

James Conca on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP)

James was interviewed for Nuclear Energy Insight:

January 2011—James Conca is senior scientist for the Institute for Energy and the Environment at New Mexico State University. He is a former director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), an independent project of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad, N.M.

James ConcaHe is also the co-author, with Judith Wright, of “The Geopolitics of Energy: Achieving a Just and Sustainable Energy Distribution by 2040.” The book advocates a national energy policy that allows the United States to get one-third of its electricity from fossil fuels, one-third from nuclear energy and one-third from renewable energy by 2040.

Nuclear Energy Insight asked Conca to share his perspective on energy policy and radioactive waste disposal.

(…) Q: Tell me about the Waste Isolation Pilot Project.

Conca: WIPP stores defense-related radioactive waste, called transuranic waste. It has to be remotely handled, shielded, the whole bit. We’ve been doing this for 11 years now.

There are no unknowns. We know exactly how much [a deep geologic repository] costs. We know exactly how to do it. It’s incredibly safe. The United States has a deep geologic nuclear repository that’s half-full and nobody even knows about it.

Q: What have been the findings of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center?

Conca: We have a 15-year record of the environment from before WIPP opened to the present. CEMRC has been operating since 1996 and WIPP since 1999. There’s been no change [in radioactivity at the site].

Read the whole thing. James will be speaking at the National Nuclear Fuel Cycle Summit (NNFCS), taking place April 2-5, 2012 in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Nuclear waste: in Sweden, Finland, USA communities want spent fuel storage facilities

There’s a secure solution to America’s energy problem buried under booming Carlsbad, N.M. If only Washington would get out of the way.

French and US polls that I’ve read consistently show that people who live near nuclear power stations want to have more nuclear, not less. That perspective is almost impossible to find in the usual sensational media coverage. But this recent Forbes article is different. Carlsbad New Mexico is the site of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP ).

(…) Since opening in 1999, WIPP has operated so smoothly and safely that Carlsbad is lobbying the feds to ­expand the project to take the nuclear mother lode: 160,000 more tons of the worst high-level nuclear waste in the country

(…) Carlsbad has a different take. “It’s really a labor of love,” says Forrest. “We’ve proven that nuclear waste can be disposed of in a safe, reliable way.”

This attitude—“Yes in my backyard,” if you will—has brought near permanent prosperity to this isolated spot that until recently had no endemic economic engine. Unemployment sits at 3.8%, versus 6.5% statewide and 8.5% nationally. And thanks to this project—euphemistically known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP—New Mexico has received more than $300 million in federal highway funds in the past decade, $100 million of which has gone into the roads around Carlsbad. WIPP is the nation’s only permanent, deep geologic repository for nuclear waste. The roads have to be good for the two dozen trucks a week hauling in radioactive drums brimming with the plutonium-laden detritus of America’s nuclear weapons production.

As recommended by the Obama administration’s blue ribbon commission, community involvement is essential to the successful siting and operation of a spent fuel storage facility. A similar story is found in the Swedish town of Östhammar a town of 22,000 inhabitants a two-hour drive north of Stockholm. Spiegel May 19, 2011 Why One Swedish Town Welcomes a Waste Dump. The towns of Östhammar and Oskarshamn competed for the new storage facility:

(…) For years, local officials were worried that another town with a nuclear power plant — Oskarshamn, which is 465 kilometers away and was also vying to be the site of the repository — would end up winning the contest. The two towns decided to make a deal. The company building the repository, Svensk Kärnbränslehantering (SKB), would provide two billion Swedish krona, or about €223 million ($312 million), of which the runner-up would receive 75 percent and the winner only 25 percent.

Some might say it was an attractive incentive for one of the towns to step on the brakes and come in second place.

The decision was made on a rainy summer day in 2009. Edelsvärd remembers the day very clearly. Östhammar town officials were sitting at the town hall, watching a live broadcast of the showdown in Stockholm. When the name of their community appeared on the screen, Edelsvärd says that “people weren’t cheering the way they would at a football match, but you could sense the feeling of elation in the room. It was a very Swedish way of expressing joy.”

Another case of good decisions resulting from competent community consultation is Finland’s new repository at Onkalo.

Please remember that what the media and Greenpeace call “nuclear waste” is actually incredibly valuable fuel for power generation. E.g., in the case of England, the UK DECC chief scientist David MacKay supported estimates that all of England’s electrical needs can be supplied for 500 years by burning the existing UK “waste”. This is in the context of Duncan Clark’s article on deployment of fast reactors such as the GE Hitachi PRISM being proposed to burn the UK “waste plutonium”.

(…) According to figures calculated for the Guardian by the American writer and fast reactor advocate Tom Blees, this alternative approach could – given a large enough number of reactors – produce enough low-carbon electricity from Britain’s waste stockpile to supply the UK at current rates of demand for more than 500 years.

MacKay confirmed this figure. “As an upper bound on what you could get from those resources in fast reactors I think it’s a very reasonable estimate. In reality you’d get all kinds of issues so you wouldn’t achieve the upper bound but I still think it’s a reasonable starting point.”

Used nuclear fuel is a good energy source

William H. Miller is a professor with the University of Missouri’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute. Here’s an excerpt explaining that nuclear “waste” is actually extremely valuable fuel:

(…) Reprocessing has great potential value for the United States. Using it along with breeder reactors would recover 90 percent of the original energy that remains in the fuel after one use in a reactor. And it would extend uranium resources for hundreds of years and reduce by at least 50 percent the amount of long-lived nuclear waste that would need to be stored in a deep-geologic repository. Additionally, the heat and toxicity of such waste would be reduced, enabling the United States to store all of the long-lived waste from power reactors and the weapons program in a single repository instead of having to find sites and pay for the construction of multiple repositories.

Such a reprocessing plant could be located at the Savannah River Site. Both South Carolina senators — Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint — are outspoken supporters of nuclear power who favor the idea of building a used-fuel reprocessing plant at this nuclear installation.

Another facility to convert surplus weapons plutonium into MOX fuel for power reactors is under construction at the Savannah River Site, providing thousands of jobs and revenue for South Carolina.

How ironic that Congress has approved the processing of weapons plutonium into MOX fuel for commercial electricity production but has yet to do the same for reprocessing used fuel stored at nuclear power plants. This contradictory policy is absurd.

Read the whole thing »

MIT study: The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (major report released)

(…) The report also strongly supports the present US government policy of providing loan guarantees for the first several new nuclear plants to be built under newly revised licensing rules. Positive experience with “first-mover” plants—the first of these new US plants built after the current long hiatus—could reduce or eliminate financing premiums for nuclear-plant construction. Once those premiums are eliminated, Forsberg says, “we think nuclear power is economically competitive” with coal power, currently the cheapest option for utilities.

The central conclusion of this just-released MIT study [PDF of the report summary] will not surprise regular Seekerblog readers: there is plenty of uranium and even more thorium, so there is no resource constraint on the rapid growth of nuclear power. I recommend reading the summary report carefully (the complete report chapters aren’t yet published on the web). For an overview, the MIT Energy Initiative press release is useful:

(…) Ernest J. Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative and co-chair of the new study, says the report’s conclusion that uranium supplies will not limit growth of the industry runs contrary to the view that had prevailed for decades—one that guided decisions about which technologies were viable. “The failure to understand the extent of the uranium resource was a very big deal” for determining which fuel cycles were developed and the schedule of their development, he says.

The study concludes that a uranium-initiated breeder design with a unity conversion ratio of 1.0 is likely to be superior to higher-conversion-ratio designs (ratios of 1.2 to 1.3). That’s one of several new concepts for me:

The new study suggests an alternative: an enriched uranium-initiated breeder reactor in which additional natural or depleted (that is, a remnant of the enrichment process) uranium is added to the reactor core at the same rate nuclear materials are consumed. No excess nuclear materials are produced. This is a much simpler and more efficient self-sustaining fuel cycle.

One of prof. Fosberg’s CSIS presentation slides captures the uranium supply/demand picture succinctly:

Best estimate of 50% increase in uranium cost if:

• Nuclear power grows by a factor of 10 worldwide

• Each reactor operates for a century

I believe that the new MIT study is a “big deal” — it provides high-credibility backing to almost every nuclear fuel cycle concept that we have been proposing (such as preserving the enormous value of “waste” for future use as fuel cycle feedstock). Our job now is to motivate the politicians to adopt and implement the conclusions.

PS – I’m keen for Appendix A to be released “Thorium Fuel Cycle Options”.

Blue Ribbon Commission: Subcommittee on Transportation and Storage

One presentation caught my eye, by Dr. Clifford Singer of Univ. of Illinois. Excerpts from the summary emphasize the incentives — which seem to totally absent from all the existing law and regulation. Ensure there is competition among several states for storage operations:

Obtaining the cooperation of localities and states on siting spent nuclear fuel management facilities requires more than building trust with local communities. States having an appropriate site will view it as a valuable energy systems asset and will want financial compensation not at the level of a few percent, but measured in tenths of the cost of the entire project. If siting is really to be voluntary, it is important not to put a single state in a monopoly position of having the only licensed site. To do so will generate tension with the federal government over the level of financial benefit to the host state and within the host state over whether the final arrangement is equitable. There must be a sensible mechanism for compensating host states and a process that leads to more than one site being licensed and ready for use.

(…) Use of the Framework: Congress should set the maximum allowed Permanent Fund charges high enough to make hosting spent fuel management facilities something that several states desire rather than wish to avoid. A short list of geological repository sites in at least six states should lead to a competition to be amongst two or preferably three chosen for licensing. It is economically optimal to age spent fuel intact over a few of the c. 30 year half lives of its most intense fission product heat generators, before its final disposition. Thus, a similar number of spent fuel aging facilities should be licensed, some of which may be at repository sites. In this context spent fuel reprocessing will not be economically favorable for many decades, if ever. If a pilot scale reprocessing facility is nevertheless licensed, it should also be licensed as an indefinitely renewable aging facility, as no reprocessing facility anywhere has yet both operated as planned and removed all high-level radioactive materials from site.

'Plan D' for Spent Nuclear Fuel

Published by Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security (ACDIS), University of Illinois

Full text [PDF]


An impasse on spent nuclear fuel management would have several effects. It would render the U.S. government liable to billions of dollars in legal fees for failure to take title to spent nuclear fuel. It would result in extra costs and security risks from suboptimal management of spent fuel at reactor sites. It would also leave nuclear fuel cycle research and development without a clear roadmap. Such a situation not only would be deleterious domestically but also would undermine U.S. influence on matters related to energy and security internationally.

The reality appears to be that most U.S. spent nuclear fuel is likely to remain where it was generated for an extended period of time. Managing this situation efficiently and laying the groundwork for a functional transition to long-term spent fuel management require paying careful attention to the financial situations of nuclear reactor site owners and the host states for long-term spent fuel management facilities. These observations led to seven recommendations, each of which would each require U.S. congressional action for implementation.

This report documents the recent success achieved in reaching a consensus on how to revise U.S. management of spent nuclear fuel. This consensus was reached at a workshop held on March 16, 2009, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Organized by the university’s Program in Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security, the workshop attracted participants from nuclear engineering programs at seven Midwestern universities. In their deliberations, these participants drew upon the findings of an earlier workshop held on June 6, 2008, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy and upon interviews in Washington, D.C., with dozens of congressional staff members. All of these efforts were supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through its Science, Technology, and Security Initiative.

Yucca Mountain

If you are keen to know everything about Yucca Mountain, read BLDG BLOG: One Million Years Of Isolation: An Interview With Abraham Van Luik. Seekerblog isn’t much interested in Yucca Mountain because we now know that we do not want to “bury” the incredibly valuable asset of unburned nuclear fuel.

I found the link to the BLDG BLOG article on Stewart Brand’s Chapter 4 webpage. In stark contrast to the Yucca Mountain fiasco Canada has developed a sensible strategy for managing unburned nuclear fuel — again from Brand’s page:

A year after the Yucca trip, Global Business Network was invited to run a scenario workshop for Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which was conducting a series of meetings to explore what Canada should do with the waste from its twenty-two CANDU nuclear reactors.…

After eighty meetings across Canada, the nation’s nuclear waste policy emerged. It is based, says a report from the organization, on the principle of “Respect for Future Generations: we should not prejudge the needs and capabilities of the future. Rather than acting in a paternalistic way, we should leave the choice of what to do with the used fuel for them to determine.” Accordingly, Canada has an “adaptive phased management” plan, where the spent fuel remains in wet and dry storage at the reactor sites while a “near term” (1 to 175 years) centralized shallow underground facility is built, designed for easy retrieval; that will be followed by a deep geological repository for permanent storage. Future Canadians have options at every step. No mention is made of 10,000 years. The report does note that “during the 175-year period, the overall radioactivity of used fuel drops to one-billionth of the level when it was removed from the reactors.…