By Stuart Price, RSVP Communications, Alexandria, Virginia, USA

If nuclear energy is to have a future, a safe solution for long-term waste management must be found. Can all parties – pro and anti – reach an agreement?

Figure 1. Spencer Abraham has recommended that the Yucca Mountain site be developed as the USA’s first long-term geologic repository
Click here to enlarge image

To be blunt, the international nuclear energy industry is constipated. While nuclear energy has played a role in our energy infrastructure for the past 50 years, no party has yet devised a satisfactory way to manage nuclear wastes over the long term and complete the nuclear fuel cycle.

On the positive side, nuclear energy assets can generate large amounts of electricity cleanly. The nuclear energy industry is mature, and engineers know how to safely design nuclear reactors and generators. Today, nuclear energy provides 17 per cent of the world’s electricity, and most experts agree that we need it and other resources – like coal, natural gas, petroleum, hydroelectric, and other renewables – to power our world.

Looking ahead, our culture will require additional electricity to thrive, and nations around the world are reassessing how to produce this energy and maintain environmental standards. We are already seeing apparent evidence of global warming – a dynamic linked with fossil fuel plants. For instance, tidal waters have begun rising around the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, near American Samoa, and an Antarctic ice shelf the size of Rhode Island shattered and collapsed into the sea in March 2002.

Nuclear energy generates electricity without releasing carbon dioxide. Replacing current fossil fuel energy resources with clean nuclear resources is one way nations can meet demands of the Kyoto Protocol.

Click here to enlarge image

Before we can maximize the benefits of nuclear energy, we need to complete the nuclear fuel cycle and come up with a socially acceptable way to manage spent nuclear fuel rod assemblies (SNFs) and high level radioactive waste (HLW) materials.

Ethics and morals?

Some claim that this topic is difficult for political reasons, not technical ones. Engineers claim that they have seriously studied this issue since the 1970s, and that they have arrived at logical, responsible disposal strategies.

Other observers claim that this topic is difficult because it presents ethical and moral questions regarding coming generations and requires us to look far into the future. Hypothetically, if world leaders came to a mutual decision tomorrow in favour of deep geologic disposal, most observers would concede that we would not suffer any immediate adverse consequences. However, the deposited wastes would still pose a very real threat for thousands of years to come. Guidelines state that long-lived wastes should be securely isolated from the biosphere for 10 000 years.

What will happen to these repositories in 100 years? In 1000 years? In 10 000 years? Will future societies lose track of them? Will people try to retrieve these active wastes on purpose or accidentally in years to come? Or will future generations come up with a more practical way to deal with these wastes?

Varied approaches

Engineers have studied many ways to manage long-term nuclear wastes – including partitioning and transmutation, indefinite storage that maintains retrievability, sub-seabed disposal, polar icecap disposal, and even launching the products into outer space.

Figure 3. Prototype vitrified waste canister
Click here to enlarge image

Of the options studied, deep geologic disposal is the preferred alternative. The heat producing properties of these wastes pose special challenges for engineers who develop waste repository models to predict future scenarios.

Over 25 nations have put forth plans to manage their SNF/HLWs. According to the US DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, most of these countries acknowledge that deep geologic disposal is a promising management option, but other alternatives are also being considered. A few countries noted below have made significant contributions to this international challenge.

Canada: Operators store SNFs in reactor pools for about six years before placing them in dry storage concrete structures. The nation plans to deposit its SNFs and HLWs in stable plutonic rock within the Canadian Shield. Officials will also evaluate the merits behind continued on-site storage at reactors as well as above or below-ground centralized storage.

China: Several new reactors are under construction or in the planning stage along China’s east coast. Current projections involve cooling SNFs in water pools at reactors for 15 years before reprocessing. Operators will vitrify the HLWs.

Click here to enlarge image

Officials are considering five sites for deep geologic disposal, including a proposed R&D lab in the Gobi Desert. They plan to conduct deep geologic disposal feasibility assessments from 2010 to 2020. Repository operations will probably begin after 2040.

France: Operators hold SNFs for one year in storage pools at reactors before transporting them to reprocessing facilities. France reprocesses its own SNFs and has also offered these services to other nations. Operators vitrify HLWs and store them at reprocessing plants for several decades awaiting final disposition.

According to Enviros Consulting in the UK, public opposition regarding deep geologic disposal has been heated in France. Even though this nation derives 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear plants, public opposition has slowed studies at potential disposal sites made of granite and marl clay. The Andra agency is now reevaluating geologic sites, waste packaging, as well as partitioning and transmutation options. Andra expects to release a recommendations report in 2005.

Germany: Germany is involved with a significant situation regarding nuclear power and waste management. In December 2001, the German Parliament approved a plan to shut down all of the nation’s 19 nuclear plants.

Operators store SNFs in pools and in dry storage at reactors for three to ten years. Parliament’s decision allows the plants to store nuclear wastes for up to 40 years. Officials have evaluated deep geologic disposal in a salt dome since the 1980s. Following the parliament decision, however, these studies ceased pending further studies.

India: India kicked off a $2.92 billion project to build two new atomic power plants in March 2002. Working with officials from Russia, these plants will connect with India’s southern grid in 2007 and 2008. Ten reactors currently generate about two per cent of the nation’s electricity. Officials plan to reprocess SNFs and vitrify HLWs. They plan to develop a deep repository in crystalline rocks underlain by granite.

Japan: Several new reactors are under construction or in planning stages across Japan. To allow cooling, operators hold SNFs at reactors. Japan contracts with France and the UK to reprocess its SNFs, and the nation plans to open its own reprocessing plant next year. Operators vitrify HLWs and store them for 30-50 years.

In October 2000, Japan established the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to evaluate deep geologic disposal options in granite and sedimentary rock media. The nation plans to construct a repository by 2030.

Russia: The Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy plans to upgrade the number of nuclear power stations both in Russia and abroad. In April 2002, the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported that the ministry plans to build domestic stations capable of generating 40 GW, and stations in other countries capable of generating 10 GW, by 2020.

Russia reprocesses its SNFs in its western region and plans to open a second reprocessing facility in its central region in the coming years. Operators store SNFs at reactors as well as in the central region and vitrify HLWs. The Russian Academy of Sciences has evaluated multi-barrier, deep geologic disposal in rock salt, granite, clay, and basalt media, but it has not announced an operations schedule.

Sweden: After SNFs cool down at nuclear power plants, operators transport them to the Central Interim Storage Facility for Spent Nuclear Fuel. Here, operators place the spent fuel in pools of water inside an underground rock cavern built to shield radiation release. The SNFs remain here for 30 years. Expansion efforts are underway because this facility will reach capacity in 2004.

Scientists have evaluated geologic disposal since the 1970s. Current plans include placing a given portion of wastes in copper canisters and placing them inside a granite bedrock repository. The canisters will be embedded in bentonite clay – a hydrous aluminum silicate mineral that swells when exposed to water. Scientists plan to monitor and evaluate these emplaced wastes over several years.

United Kingdom: Operators store SNFs in pools at reactor sites. The UK reprocesses its own SNFs and offers these services to other nations. Operators vitrify HLWs at reprocessing sites. With an eye on public approval, the UK is reviewing its national radwaste management policy. In 1999, the country decided to store its waste products underground and reevaluate geologic disposal.

United States: The USA stands at the vanguard as regards nuclear waste R&D. In March 1999, the DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) became the first project to place nuclear wastes in a deep geologic repository. While spent fuel and HLWs are excluded from this project, operators did place barreled wastes into the WIPP repository – a mined salt bed located almost half a mile (0.8 km) underground in the state of New Mexico.

WIPP wastes include products contaminated with elements like plutonium and hazardous materials like industrial solvents. These mixed transuranic wastes mostly emit alpha particle radiation and pose inhalation dangers. They will remain dangerous for thousands of years and require long-term isolation from the biosphere.

The WIPP repository is located in the southeast corner of the state, just outside the city of Carlsbad. One especially interesting thing about the WIPP project involves public sentiments. Persons around the country – especially in Sante Fe, the capital of New Mexico – have vehemently protested WIPP operations and the notion of burying long-term, mixed wastes inside the state. Community leaders and political officials in the immediate community of Carlsbad, however, have generally endorsed the project and welcomed the first waste shipments.

The WIPP project will provide valuable lessons in community relations, the need to maintain waste retrievability, and the other deep geologic repository issues.

The DOE Yucca Mountain Project concerns US plans to isolate SNFs and HLWs from the biosphere.

In February 2002, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham formally recommended to President Bush that the Yucca Mountain site should be developed as the nation’s first long-term geologic repository for SNFs/HLWs. The secretary stressed that the nation needs this facility to promote national energy security.

Located in southern section of the state of Nevada, operators have spent $4 billion researching this facility for the past 20 years. Yucca Mountain is largely made of tuff – hard, compacted volcanic ash. Scientists have comprehensively analyzed the geology of this site and mapped rock units, faults, fractures, and volcanic features. They have drilled extensive boreholes, taken core samples, analyzed water samples, excavated over 10.5 km of tunnels, and conducted heat tests to determine whether this environment would serve as a safe, reliable waste repository.

The DOE has consulted with other domestic and international authorities to analyse Yucca Mountain. These authorities have included members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, the US Geological Survey, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In his recommendation, Secretary Abraham stated: “I could not and would not recommend the Yucca Mountain site without having first determined that a repository at Yucca Mountain will bring together the location, natural barriers, and design elements necessary to protect the health and safety of the public.”

Local opposition

Figure 2. There is strong local opposition to the development of the Yucca Mountain site
Click here to enlarge image

But everything has not gone smoothly for this project. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal newspaper, Kenny Guinn – the Governor of Nevada – announced in April 2002 that he would seek $3 million from the state to support an anti-Yucca Mountain campaign. This money would support television advertising and public outreach to encourage citizens to speak out against the project. This money would be taken from a state emergency contingency fund normally used to support fire fighting and natural disaster responses.

In a prepared statement, the governor stated that: “There has never been a more critical time in Nevada’s fight against the nuclear dump being located in Nevada, which is why I intend to go before the Nevada Legislature for additional funding.” US Senators Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and John Ensign (R-Nevada) reached out to the governor and asked him to seek these funds.

Finding a solution

As we proceed into this century, our world will require additional levels of electricity, energy plants that do not aggravate the global warming dynamic, and safe energy policies that look out for future generations.

Nuclear assets can help us meet these challenges, but not until we determine a satisfactory way to complete the nuclear fuel cycle.

To meet this challenge, different countries need to answer the concerns of all stakeholders satisfactorily – including environmental activists, nuclear engineers, community leaders, utility officials, scientists, regulators, geophysicists, and politicians. One way to do this may be to form distinct national councils that comprise representatives from different stakeholder groups.

Such councils could give stakeholders an active voice to influence these public operations. These councils could meet and consider specific waste management issues. These issues might include repository siting criteria, waste transportation routing, additional waste management alternatives, emergency response scenarios, the value of joining an international geologic repository compact, or ways to inform future generations of the repository’s presence. Members could freely discuss appropriate topics like the pros and cons of indefinite above-ground storage versus indefinite below-ground storage.

Members could also discuss potential economic compensation that might be needed to smooth over especially controversial matters.

After reaching mutually acceptable decisions, the councils could submit formal recommendations to decision-making bodies. Clarifying issues in these councils would be far more timely and less expensive than deciding them in court.

We face very real energy and environmental challenges. In the end, we need to ask ourselves if we are capable of completing the back end of this energy system, or whether we are really only capable of building and maintaining a worldwide fleet of nuclear reactors.