Friday, March 13, 2009

Nuclear Waste: A Government-created Problem

Last week the Obama administration emphatically eliminated the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada for storing highly radioactive nuclear waste. This decision was not based on science but on politics: Obama in his presidential campaign told Nevadans that if elected, he wouldn't allow nuclear wastes to be stored there. The storage site was not popular with the state's voters or with Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who is from Nevada. Obama did win Nevada's electoral votes, but the campaign promise is costing the taxpayers billions of dollars that has already been invested in the site now being junked—in defiance of Congress.

In 1982 Congress directed the government to assume responsibility for commercial nuclear waste, and in 1987 it singled out Yucca Mountain for evaluation as the repository because of its remote and dry location. After years of research, Congress in 2002 endorsed the Yucca Mountain site. The $13.5 billion spent there since 1987 included boring a five-mile tunnel into the mountain, along with numerous niches for testing, and hundreds of studies to determine the safety of storage there for thousands of years. Obama is not a scientist, and his decision was not made from a review of the scientific research. His Energy Secretary Steven Chu is a scientist but had been on the job only a few weeks, and in that time couldn't possibly have read all the hundreds of studies before announcing his support for Obama's decision. Obama has called for more study of the issue, meaning further delay.

Until a deep permanent repository is established, the 104 nuclear plants operating in the U.S. are required to store their radioactive wastes temporarily in steel and concrete casks near their reactors. The Hanford, Washington nuclear plant is running out of space for cask storage and would like instead to vitrify the wastes, which would turn them into a stable glass form. It has warned the energy department of its dilemma, because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires that high-level waste be disposed of in a deep geologic repository after the vitrification plant starts operating. So it can't start vitrifying until there is a repository.

Nuclear wastes are also building up at the other plants. More than 60,000 tons of existing waste are “temporarily” stored near reactors, and 2,000 tons are being added every year. Xcel Energy operates two nuclear plants in Minnesota, where I live. Its Prairie Island plant has a large stainless steel-lined indoor pool and 24 outdoor casks full of radioactive waste. It can fill five more. Each cask is 16 feet 10 inches tall, 8 feet 6 inches in diameter, and weighs 122 tons fully loaded. The utility is seeking approval for 35 more if it gets its license extended for another 20 years.

The lack of on-site storage space for nuclear wastes is now being used as an argument for denying license renewals for existing nuclear plants. The New York Times notes, “Opponents of nuclear power contend that the nation's failure to find a permanent repository for the waste is a reason to shut down nuclear reactors and forget about building new ones.” No new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. for thirty years. Seventeen companies have filed applications with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build 26 new plants, but there are long lead times due primarily to regulatory procedures. Tim Kauffman, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, says it will be 2018 before even four new plants will be up and running. Re-licensing of existing plants is thus crucial just to maintain our current nuclear generating capacity, which provides 22.5 percent of the nation's electricity.

Obama babbles out of one side of his mouth about energy independence, lowering the cost of energy, and reducing fossil fuel use in order to lower carbon dioxide emissions, alleged to be causing global warming. Out of the other side of his mouth he is spewing policy measures that result in just the opposite and cause further delays. Though he says nuclear energy has a place in his program, he is calling for “more study” of the nuclear waste issue—as if 20+ years has not been enough. Meanwhile, the cost of delays is building up just as the nuclear wastes are.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has up to four years to consider the Yucca Mountain license application. The Energy Department apparently does not intend to withdraw its Yucca license application, fearing that could trigger lawsuits from the nuclear industry. Courts have already awarded companies about $1 billion because of government contracts obligating it to begin taking waste in 1998. The industry may also demand return of the $22 billion it paid the Energy Department to establish the repository. The New York Times says, “Lawyers are predicting tens of billions of dollars from suits by utilities that must pay to store their wastes instead of having the government bury them, with the figure rising by about a half-billion dollars for each year of additional delay.”

The most ridiculous aspect of the government fiasco regarding nuclear waste disposal is that the whole problem was precipitated by government. It need never have occurred at all. France has 59 nuclear plants, which produce 80 percent of its energy—and it stores all its 30 years of nuclear waste beneath the floor of one room in Le Hague! No problem.

France, Japan and other nations with nuclear plants recycle their spent nuclear fuel. To them, it is not nuclear “waste” but a resource. France even imports this resource from Italy (Caorso) and United Kingdom (Sellafield) for reprocessing, which recycles about 98 percent of the material in spent nuclear fuel rods. One percent is the fissionable uranium isotope U-235. Ninety-five percent is non-fissionable U-238 and can't be used for bombs; it's no different than the U-238 in 1 percent of the earth's crust. Plutonium 239, which is fissionable, is formed when small amounts of U-238 absorb neutrons; it is one percent of spent fuel. It is reprocessed and put back into a reactor as “mixed oxide fuel” of uranium plus plutonium. The remaining spent fuel yields small amounts of radioactive isotopes for medical and industrial uses. Nuclear medicine in the U.S. is now a $4 billion business, involving 40 percent of all medical procedures. In the absence of our own reprocessing facilities, we import these isotopes from Canada.

Why doesn't the U.S. reprocess spent fuel as other nations so successfully do? Because in 1977 President Jimmy Carter foolishly established a permanent ban on reprocessing, in the belief he was reducing the risk of bomb-making material being stolen. President Obama has flatly refused to allow reprocessing, saying it is “not an option.”

But the risk of theft from nuclear waste is misguided. Uranium 235 in a reactor is only 3 percent. You couldn't blow up a reactor with it if you tried. To make a weapon from it, it would have to be enriched to 90 percent, an extremely difficult industrial operation. The concern is over the 1 percent of nuclear waste that is plutonium 239. Reprocessing allows this to be consumed by putting it back into a reactor as fuel. And extracting plutonium from highly radioactive material is far beyond the capabilities of terrorists—and far too dangerous to be tempting or offer much chance of success. France has never had a problem with theft, nor has any other nation that reprocesses nuclear waste. Indeed, it can be argued that confining spent nuclear fuel to a small area makes it easier to safeguard against theft.

There are lessons here for those who believe in government's ability to solve problems and propose expanding its role to “solve” even more of them for us. First, notice that, despite the long time involved, government has never solved this problem but, rather, was the cause of it. Second, the government choice of a “solution” precluded better solutions. Third, critical scientific decisions were not based on science but on political considerations; (what else could you expect from political entities?) Fourth, throwing vast quantities of money at the problem hasn't solved anything but simply increased the cost to the taxpayers. Fifth, the delays caused by government have resulted in the problem getting steadily worse and more expensive. Sixth, the outlook for the future is more delays, more expense, and still no solution is in sight.


Michael J. McFadden said...

Excellent analysis on the reprocessing question. I'd never looked into it much before and you seem to have explained it VERY clearly. Thanks!

Michael J. McFadden
Author of "Dissecting Antismokers' Brains"

thorium said...

Thank you Edmund for this concise and timely blog. Aside from the Wall Street Journal, Obama's momentous decision to strangle nuclear power caused nary a blip on the mass media news screen. Also timely, is a suggestion to read or reread Atlas Shrugged so that one may glimpse more of what is in store for us as the principles of liberty and economic/individual freedom are ignored.