Recycle everything, America—except your nuclear waste

Americans have come late to the game on responsible consumerism, but they are making up for lost time with a passionate obsession about waste.  It’s no coincidence that Fox News, CNN, YouTube and USA Today have all reported that the deepest solo ocean dive found plastic waste seven miles below the surface, in the Mariana Trench.

Now that Americans are “woke” about waste in general, they may turn to the specific kind produced by the nuclear energy industry. Plans to revitalize US nuclear power, which is in dire economic straits, depend on the potential for new, “advanced” reactors to reduce and recycle the waste they produce.  Unfortunately, as they “burn” some kinds of nuclear wastes, these plants will create other kinds that also require disposal. At the same time, these “advanced” reactors—many of which are actually reprises of past efforts—increase security and nuclear weapons proliferation risks and ultimately do nothing to break down the political and societal resistance to finding real solutions to nuclear waste disposal.

The current nuclear dream is really no different from previous ones of the last 70 years: the next generation of reactors, nuclear power advocates insist, will be safer, cheaper, more reliable, less prone to produce nuclear bomb-making material, and more versatile (producing electricity, heat, and perhaps hydrogen), without creating the wastes that have proved almost impossible to deal with in the United States.  The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act specifically describes the advanced reactors it seeks to support as having all those positive characteristics.  This newest burst of enthusiasm for advanced reactors is, however, largely fueled by the idea that they will burn some of their long-lived radioisotopes, thereby becoming nuclear incinerators for some of their own waste.

Many of these “advanced” reactors are actually repackaged designs from 70 years ago.  If the United States, France, the UK, Germany, Japan, Russia, and others could not make these reactors economically viable power producers in that time, despite spending more than $60 billion, what is different now?  Moreover, all of the “advanced” designs under discussion now are simply “PowerPoint” reactors: They have not been built at scale, and, as a result, we don’t really know all the waste streams that they will produce.

It’s tempting to believe that having new nuclear power plants that serve, to some degree, as nuclear garbage disposals means there is no need for a nuclear garbage dump, but this isn’t really the case. Even in an optimistic assessment, these new plants will still produce significant amounts of high-level, long-lived waste. What’s more, new fuel forms used in some of these advanced reactors could pose waste disposal challenges not seen to date.

Some of these new reactors would use molten salt-based fuels that, when exposed to water, form highly corrosive hydrofluoric acid. Therefore, reprocessing (or some form of “conditioning”) the waste will likely be required for safety reasons before disposal. Sodium-cooled fast reactors—a “new” technology proposed to be used in some advanced reactors, including the Bill Gates-funded TerraPower reactors—face their own disposal challenges. These include dealing with the metallic uranium fuel which is pyrophoric (that is, prone to spontaneous combustion) and would need to be reprocessed into a safer form for disposal.

Unconventional reactors may reduce the level of some nuclear isotopes in the spent fuel they produce, but that won’t change what really drives requirements for our future nuclear waste repository: the heat production of spent fuel and amount of long-lived radionuclides in the waste. To put it another way, the new reactors will still need a waste repository, and it will likely need to be just as large as a repository for the waste produced by the current crop of conventional reactors.

Recycling and minimizing—even eliminating—the waste streams that many industries produce is responsible and prudent behavior. But in the context of nuclear energy, recycling is expensive, dirty, and ultimately dangerous.  Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel—which some advanced reactor designs require for safety reasons—actually produces fissile material that could be used to power nuclear weapons.  This is precisely why the United States has avoided the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel for the last four decades, despite having the world’s largest number of commercial nuclear power plants.

Continuing research on how to deal with nuclear waste is a great idea. But building expensive prototypes of reactors whose fuel requires reprocessing, on the belief that such reactors will solve the nuclear waste problem in America, is misguided. At the same time, discounting the notion that a US move into reprocessing might spur other countries to develop this same technology—a technology they could secretly exploit to produce nuclear weapons—is shortsighted and damaging to US national and world security.


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ChrisMike McKeenMike KellerDonna GilmoreErica Gray Recent comment authors
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Johannes Mikhail
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Johannes Mikhail

You forget that firstly there are new vitrification processes which are being developed and could solve a large percentage of high level waste issues. And that if you use empty oil reservoirs such as the ones in Oklahoma and Texas, you can rid yourself of all liquid waste. And all the waste that isn’t liquid? You turn it into a liquid uranium hexaflouride slurry then chemically neutralize the acid and put it in the oil well where it is miles below the water table. Beyond that “Repackaged”? Did you forget that boiling water reactors today with modern equipment are basically… Read more »

Mike McKeen
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Mike McKeen

While I understand this is an opinion piece, there are a few items in this article that really don’t quite mesh with the facts. Because they are presented from a supposedly authoritative source, many people won’t question the assertions. I’d like to cover a few of them here. Lets get some terminology out of the way first. Fast Breeder and Sodium Cooled reactors mentioned above are, for our purposes, the same thing. These reactors use solid, generally metallic fuel instead of the ceramic fuels encased in metal tubes. Molten Salt Reactors are different in that the nuclear fuel is generally… Read more »

Erica Gray
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Erica Gray

However, as the FOIA documents reveal in detail, the pyroprocessing technology simply has not worked well and has fallen far short of initial predictions (Figure 1) (Refs. 1-3). Although DOE initially claimed that the entire inventory would be processed by 2007, as of the end of Fiscal Year 2016, only about 15% of the roughly 26 metric tons of spent fuel had been processed. Over $210 million has been spent, at an average cost of around $50,000 per kilogram of fuel treated. At this rate, it will take until the end of the century to complete pyroprocessing of the entire… Read more »

Mike McKeen
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Mike McKeen

Erica, pyroprocessing was never intended to be just a waste disposal technology. Pyroprocessing was intended to recycle spent fuel elements for reuse in the LMFBR that produced them, and indeed that is what it did. The high level “spent fuel treatment product” that contains high levels of plutonium is indeed not suited to serve as fuel…in a light water reactor. It is quite well suited to serve as fuel in a fast reactor. Just as the above opinion piece omits critical details, so does the article you cited. Why have other nations been interested, but seemingly unable to procure this… Read more »

Chris
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Chris

@Erica Gray, from the source materials you cited: a summary of 15 reports concluded that “all criteria were successfully met” and that “The EBR-II Spent Nuclear Fuel Demonstration Project has established electrometallurgical technology as a viable option for treatment of…spent nuclear fuel.” While Ed Lyman is correct that DOE never concluded that the sodium-bonded spent fuel was unsafe to directly dispose of in the first place, he misses the point of the project. It was a research and demonstration program. If someone is afraid to learn, or afraid of ever doing anything new, then research is a threatening prospect indeed.

Mike Keller
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Mike Keller

The statement that high temperature MSRs are orders of magnitude more efficient than water reactors is factually incorrect. Efficiency is primarily a function of the working fluid temperature used to generate electricity. As the MSRs generate steam, that’s sets a limit on the practical efficiency of the plant. Very High temperature reactors are not that useful if the steam plant materials cannot handle the required temperature and pressures. Bottom line: MSR efficiency around 40% versus water reactor’s of around 34%. Clearly, not “orders of magnitude” By contrast, gas turbines (combined-cycle) have efficiencies of around 55%, and these are the most… Read more »

Mike McKeen
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Mike McKeen

High temperature MSRs, relative to the lower temperatures achieved by water cooled reactors, are orders of magnitude more efficient. The efficiency comes in the consumption of fuel rather than the efficiency of the steam plant. I suppose I should be have been more specific in my initial post, which I’ll admit was hastily composed. A combined cycle gas turbine is indeed very efficient although you’re still emitting greenhouse gases where a nuclear plant does not. Eventually, you might find Brayton cycle turbines an option should they prove economically feasible and that would improve the thermodynamic efficiency of an MSR. The… Read more »

Chris
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Chris

“Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel—which some advanced reactor designs require for safety reasons—actually produces fissile material that could be used to power nuclear weapons.”
What are the safety reasons advanced reactors require reprocessing? Which reactors does this not apply to?

Donna Gilmore
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The US Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (nwtrb.gov) admitted in their Spring 2018 meeting on geological repositories that no one has the technology to make any geological repository work for even 20 years, let alone long term, and they have no idea how they ever will. It’s time to quit believing the false promises of future solutions. The best we can do right now is to use thick-wall bolted lid metal casks (10″ to 19.75″ thick) that have ASME N3 nuclear pressure vessel certificates. Instead, the NRC grants numerous exemptions to ASME in order to approve thin-wall stainless steel welded… Read more »

Chris
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Chris

Donna Gilmore’s comment conflates the design of dry fuel casks with those of a reactor pressure vessel. The NRC has responded specifically to her group’s claims. The expert determination is that, “There are absolutely no immediate concerns regarding the condition of the MPCs, and their ability to perform their confinement function.” Also that the dry fuel casks will be safe in the future, “It’s safe for indefinite use…for 100 years.”
http://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1834/ML18347B379.pdf

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