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Is The Nuclear Waste Problem Overblown?

  • Nuclear energy is finally gaining some political momentum.
  • While the amount of nuclear waste generated from energy operations is fairly small, many communities shun the idea of storing it themselves.
  • Recycling could prove to be a potential solution to the world’s nuclear waste issue.
Nuclear Energy

In the previous article, I discussed some of the developments that are taking place to make nuclear power safer, such that major accidents like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima are simply no longer possible. But the other major issue nuclear opponents generally raise is what to do with the radioactive waste that is generated during the production of nuclear power.

I posed this question to Dr. Kathryn Huff, the Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy.

Addressing Nuclear Waste

The good news is that the amount of waste generated is generally small. In fact, nuclear plants have simply stored the waste on-site, but that isn’t a long-term solution to the problem.

The storage of nuclear waste is always a hot political topic. Many communities don’t want waste stored in their vicinity, and some even object to the waste being transported through their towns. That has hampered projects like the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal facility in Nevada, which was been studied as a potential storage facility since the 1970s.

Dr. Huff explained that nuclear waste is currently being stored onsite at nuclear plants, but the DOE is restarting the initiative to find a storage facility. Such permanent storage facilities are the approach favored by several other nations.

In fact, Finland is currently developing the world’s first permanent disposal site for high-level nuclear waste on an island off Finland’s west coast. The waste will be buried in about 100 tunnels about 1,400 feet underground. The facility is projected to hold all of Finland’s nuclear waste until about the year 2100, and is meant to contain spent fuel rods for 100,000 years. The design relies on multiple barriers designed to prevent water from reaching the waste and carrying it into the water supply. It is expected to begin operating next year.

A different approach is recycling nuclear waste to recover fissile and fertile materials for additional power production from nuclear power plants. Reprocessing nuclear waste allows for the recovery of plutonium, which is then mixed with depleted uranium oxide to make fresh fuel.

This process reduces the volume of high-level waste (HLW) by about 85%, while extracting up to 30% more energy from the uranium. It also reduces the amount of uranium that has to be mined.

Recycling policies are in place in France, some other European countries, as well as Russia, China, and Japan.

Dr. Huff explained that these policies work in France because the same entity is responsible for all parts of the nuclear process — from the reactor, waste, and repository. That is not the case in the U.S., and that complicates efforts to deal with this issue. Thus, this is more of a long-term option for the U.S.

Ramping up Nuclear Power

Finally, I asked Dr. Huff what the U.S. is doing to kick start nuclear power in the U.S., and push U.S. technology to the rest of the world.

She said that political support for nuclear power is improving. The bipartisan infrastructure law allocated $6 billion into current reactors and $2.5 billion more into new reactor designs. There are initiatives for nuclear-powered hydrogen, and production tax credits for clean energy including nuclear. The goal is a doubling by 2050 of nuclear in the U.S.

Related: Pierre Andurand: Europe Can Replace Large Part Of Russian Gas With LNG

The International Energy Agency (IEA) also believes the world will need to double nuclear production by 2050 as it decarbonizes. So, what is the U.S. doing to aid these efforts?

The DOE- International Affairs Office has an international nuclear cooperation office. There has been a lot of interest in U.S. nuclear designs from Eastern Europe because of energy security concerns. Dr. Huff noted that we have built American reactors in China, but they want to commercialize their own technologies (which were clearly influenced by U.S. designs).  


Dr. Huff noted that not all options are appropriate for replacing retiring coal plants. Energy planning models show the grid's need for second to second energy balance. A day-to-day view might cause you to believe you needed less storage than you actually need, but short-term balancing requires fast responding power.

Nuclear plants are physically similar-sized and of the same energy output and reliability as coal plants. The grid is set up for those switchouts. The workforce is also compatible. Similar kinds of skilled trades work at coal plants that would be needed at nuclear power plants.

By Robert Rapier

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