Events at Fukushima in Japan have put the spotlight not just on nuclear power as a source of energy, but on the storage of nuclear waste. Some of the gravest dangers at Fukushima resulted from spent fuel rods held in cooling tanks that lost fluid and overheated. The world is awash with spent fuel rods being stored in this manner, usually for up to five years while the rods cool to the point were they can be moved, but often for much longer as utility operators struggle to find long-term storage solutions. The Japanese experience has added an additional dynamic to debates in the US about finding a long-term solution and encouraged members in both houses of Congress to try to overcome President Obama’s cancellation of the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada.
According to the Global Security News Wire, the U.S. House Energy And Commerce Committee has started an investigation into the Obama administration’s cancellation of the project while South Carolina and Washington have filed a suit in federal court saying the government has reneged on decades-old commitments to create a long-term store. Opposition to Yucca Mountain within the state of Nevada is probably strong enough to make the project an unworkable solution; as has been shown elsewhere, the support of the local population is key to overcoming planning approval.
In the UK, where the country has been accumulating waste since its first reactor came online in 1956, plans to build a 1000-meter (3300-foot) deep repository in the country’s northwest county of Cumbria has taken a long time, but a decision is expected shortly. Support has built over time such that three communities expressed an interest in the project being sited close to their towns, but then Cumbria has long had ties with Britain’s nuclear reprocessing industry at Sellafield and has become comfortable with the industry being part of its backyard.
Similarly, a Financial Times article describes even more advanced plans to build a depository some 500 meters underground in Sweden in 1.9 billion-year-old rock formations. After 15 years of consultation, two local communities are so keen for the $2.8 billion investment to be made near their towns that they are competing for the project and the jobs that go with it. Under the plan, waste would be buried in copper canisters 500 meters underground, set on granite bedrock with a clay buffer above. The store would be designed to take 6,000 copper canisters containing the used fuel. Building is due to start in 2015 and the first capsules buried by 2020. As in the US, financing has already been raised through a levy on nuclear power.
And therein lies much of the annoyance felt by US states like South Carolina; the US government has been raising the funds for nuclear disposal via $0.0001/KwHr surcharge for years. It doesn’t sound like much but the fund is already at US$24 billion and yet is perversely ring-fenced for the Yucca Mountain project preventing use for other potential solutions such as dry cask storage. According to the WSJ, the US has generated roughly 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste—enough to fill a football field more than 15 feet deep, according to the Government Accountability Office. The GAO has projected that number will more than double to 153,000 metric tons by 2055 and yet a 2003 report by the Energy Department said it would cost just $7 billion to move all of the movable spent fuel then at U.S. nuclear reactors to dry casks. That is a fraction of the cost of the Yucca Mountain project, which has been estimated at $100 billion, and while not a solution for tens of thousands of years (unless the casks are in a deep depository like Yucca), it is certainly a solution for hundreds of years until technologies develop to make alternative arrangements.
Readily available data would suggest Yucca isn’t quite in the same league as the Swedish location, but is far and away the US’ front-runner. Deep geological disposal requires sites to be highly stable and have no running water – due to the risk of container corrosion and possible contamination of ground water in a resulting leak. An alternative to Yucca would need to show the same qualities of extreme dryness found in that area of Nevada and although the site is near a fault line, it is thought to be inactive and several old volcanoes in the vicinity have not been active for a million years. The US does have a similar site in New Mexico, but so far it has only been used for military spent fuel materials.
The subtleties of alternative storage methods may not be the focus of the general public — they will merely want to be assured that whatever the authorities decide as the way forward is indeed a secure, safe and lasting solution, and not an exercise of kicking the can down the road (as we have been doing since the 1980s). For sure though, a storage leak in the US like Japan has suffered would almost certainly put back the industry here by decades just as Three Mile Island has put a moratorium on new reactor builds for the last thirty years.
By. Stuart Burns
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