Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Where Nuclear Waste Is Stored

In the wake of the nuclear waste fires at Fukushima, many people are learning for the first time where the nuclear waste is. It should be obvious enough, since there are no nuclear waste disposal facilities in operation, but it’s something the nuclear power industry doesn’t really like to talk about, since no one (in the United States, anyway), seems to have an answer for nuclear waste.

I worked on the economics of nuclear waste during the Reagan/Bush years. The U.S. Department of Energy in those years was so staunchly pro-nuclear that their “base” case, the lowest scenario for the nuclear power industry they allowed us to consider in our nuclear waste analysis, was that all the nuclear reactors that were planned as of 1980 would go on line as scheduled, while no new nuclear power stations were started. The more likely scenarios, as the Department of Energy saw it, was that nuclear electric capacity would double or triple by 2000. The reality, as we knew at the time but could not say in our reports, fell well short of the base case. Nearly every project fell behind schedule, and some were suspended or abandoned.

The U.S. government ultimately has responsibility for disposal of nuclear waste, but has been taking custody of it at an extremely slow pace, only to the extent that it is useful to the military. It has been collecting token fees supposedly to cover the costs of nuclear waste disposal, but the amounts collected are so low that it still does not have the money to open its first disposal site — and even then, there will be no money to pay for processing the nuclear waste for safe storage.

Nuclear waste has to be, at a minimum, encased in glass or ceramics to permanently isolate it from the air, transported in small sturdy containers (plans so far call for oil drums, which makes sense to me), placed underground (probably in a former uranium mine), and surrounded with an inert material such as clay that will absorb radiation and prevent the movement of air for about 100,000 years. We have the technology to do all this — in fact, it could all be done with pre-industrial technology — but we lack the will to spend the money. The government has been waiting around hoping someone will come up with a cheaper way, but at this late date, there is no reason to hold on to that hope. The hesitation is understandable, though. The costs could amount to as much as one fourth of all the revenue from nuclear electricity over the past half century, and the government will have to pay for it, as it has not been collecting nearly enough money from the electric utilities to cover the costs, and the electric companies at this point are unable to pay for such an enormous project.

In the meantime, nuclear waste is stored at every nuclear power station. It is essentially the same story in every country with nuclear power.

The fires that have broken out in at least one nuclear waste pool at Fukushima show that this is not really the right answer. The nuclear waste there has released high levels of radioactivity forcing workers to evacuate the plant for hours at a time and interfering with their efforts to get the plant itself under control.

Most nuclear waste has to be stored on-site for several years, but then we should be encasing it in glass to isolate it from the air and transporting it to a secure military facility away from population centers for temporary storage in an underground building. This will cost a fortune, but as we have now seen, it could save lives in the event of a disaster striking a nuclear power station.