Marriage and Nuclear Waste Management

What marriage can teach us about the nuclear waste problem

By Suzanne Baker

I am married to an engineer. My husband, Ted, is amazingly brilliant and always has big new projects happening, both at work and at home. At work he is figuring out how to improve hybrid vehicle batteries to reduce automobile emissions. At home he’s built our dining table, a shed, a chicken coop, raised garden beds, fences, rock walls, a walking path, a pizza oven, a shooting range, and a fully automated home beer brewing robot. He gardens, he cooks, he digs trenches. I know! I’m a very lucky girl!

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My hubs, a true Renaissance man and expert mess maker

Because I love the outcomes of all of these great projects, a significant portion of my home life is spent chasing him around like a crazy person helping to clean up messes. But it works. We are a great team. I try to set him up for success by making sure the messes of past projects are dealt with effectively before he starts on the next thing. How can you build a porch if you don’t know where your drill bits are? And in turn he always checks in with me about which projects to prioritize and how to best manage our resources. We rarely make a decision about any project without a spreadsheet and a Solid Works drawing first.

Messes and priorities

The nuclear industry is currently a bit like Ted before Suzy. Tons of amazing ideas and all of the necessary skills to create them—but a big problem with managing past messes, and some issues with setting priorities. As a nontechnical person, I don’t tend to make recommendations for specific technologies, but in a recent conversation (which reminded me of any given Tuesday at the Baker house), I laid out my thoughts on how to best manage our commercial nuclear waste. It struck me that these thoughts may be worth sharing.

The conversation started in a Google group after someone posted an article I wrote about CORVA—the nuclear waste storage facility in the Netherlands—as a part of the Nuclear Tourist series. In the post I asserted that, “Nuclear waste storage is perhaps the one thing that nuclear supporters, opponents, nonproliferation experts, politicians and everyday folks all agree on!!” As a proponent of interest bargaining, I see the waste issue as a key platform for building trust and collaboration in the near term, and enabling growth in the long term. I knew when I wrote that statement that I was going to get some backlash from nuclear supporters about how [insert your favorite generation IV reactor here] is going to make a repository unnecessary.

So, here’s the deal. Much like at my house, where a new project doesn’t get started until the last one has been finished—finishing what you’ve started is a huge part of building trust and responsibly managing resources. In addition, even with advanced reactor technologies, there is going to be some waste—from reprocessing, from research reactors, medicine, and industry. Of course, it would not make sense to put valuable usable materials into a geologic repository—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have one for true waste. In fact, if done properly, putting this infrastructure into place will strengthen public trust and show that we are responsible and ready to move forward with advanced technologies.

Moving forward with America’s nuclear waste

So as someone who is quite experienced, not in actual nuclear engineering, but in wrangling an engineer (namely, my hubs) and helping to maximize the benefits of his ideas—here are my thoughts on how to best move forward with America’s nuclear waste (which has been slightly edited/ improved upon for this post):

In my dream scenario, we finish the Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, start reprocessing and build an interim facility somewhere on the east coast using the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommendations of community-based siting. Then get policy in place to open the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), in New Mexico, up to commercial waste, possibly even building an above-ground interim facility there as well to serve the West Coast. Then we only place materials that absolutely are waste into the salt bed at WIPP—medical, industrial and research waste, vitrified waste from reprocessing—keeping potentially useful materials at the interim sites for future advanced reactors.

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The author at the COVRA interim waste storage facility. If they can figure this out in the Netherlands, we can do it here too.

This scenario takes into consideration upholding important international nonproliferation agreements with Russia, and continues the legacy established by the Megatons to Megawatts program of dismantling weapons and using the materials to produce low-carbon domestic energy. Then no one can say that we don’t know what to do with the waste, that we are unreliable partners, that we aren’t taking proper steps to prevent proliferation—the standard criticisms used to derail many a nuclear project.

And in terms of transport—there are over 54,000 shipments of radioactive materials EACH DAY worldwide. Increasing US transport would barely impact the existing number. The French ship spent fuel in from all over Europe and Asia—much further distances than anything in the United State.  Again—this is not a technical problem—but rather a political one. But unless we learn to solve the political problems, we will never get the technical solutions implemented. 

I also think that the federal government—which is responsible for a whole lot of the fear and distrust associated with nuclear waste due to mismanagement of legacy materials and the failure to complete the Yucca Mountain repository—needs to be accountable and prioritize solving the nuclear waste issue as a matter of national security on multiple fronts: domestic energy security, nonproliferation, and climate change. These are pressing issues for every American. Functioning waste management infrastructure is essential to solving multiple extremely important challenges.

Next: La Hague reprocessing facility

Next week I travel to France to tour the La Hague reprocessing facility and will undoubtedly learn a great deal and probably have a lot more information to add to my “dream scenario”—perhaps I will even have a whole new perspective on the situation. But one thing I know for sure from traveling throughout Europe for the past three months is that we have a lot of excellent options in managing nuclear waste, and that this problem is solvable. We just have to focus on the cultural and political challenges, like accountability, perceptions, and trust, as much as we focus on the technical challenges. Striking that balance is critical in achieving positive outcomes (pardon the pun).

Full disclosure: AREVA, one of the companies involved in building the MOX facility in the United States, is one of the sponsors for the Nuclear Tourist project. As a resident of South Carolina, I have been an active proponent of the MOX facility well before their sponsorship, even helping to organize a rally at a public meeting last year. Opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of sponsors of the Nuclear Literacy Project or PopAtomic Studios.

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suzy hobbs baker 120x148Suzy Baker is currently traveling through Europe and reporting on her experiences at Diary of a Nuclear Tourist—a new initiative of the Nuclear Literacy Project. Keep up with her nuclear adventures and be sure to check out the new photo stream. If you have questions for nuclear industry leaders, write them on an index card, then scan or photograph and email to Suzy@nuclearliteracy.org

11 Responses to Marriage and Nuclear Waste Management

  1. Evelyn Baker

    Good Job Suzie, I liked this article!

  2. Suzy,
    I predict that La Hague will be a real eye-opener for you. There, you will learn that “waste” nuclear fuel actually contains 96% of the original fissionable material, U-235. This means that the USA’s policy of disposing of used fuel rods is ridiculous… it’s like buying a case of champagne, drinking 1/2 a bottle and then throwing away the other eleven and a half bottles!.. Instead we should be recycling used fuel rods – that would turn practically ALL the used rods into new fuel and DRASTICALLY cut the waste. It’s also the magic bullet that would convert anti-nuclear folks to pro-nuclear because “what about the waste?” is their rally cry and recycling completely solves that issue.

  3. Bob Russsell

    Good job. We need more of this kind of common sense, spread throughout the country.

  4. Michael Blubaugh

    Awesome article! I really think we need to explore the recycling options with spent fuel before final disposal. I’ve been in the nuclear power field for nearly thirty years. It seems to me the only thing preventing a comprehensive waste processing and management policy is politics. Once we get together and DECIDE – we will establish ourselves as industry leaders.

  5. Suzy Baker

    Thanks for all of the feedback! I really appreciate the support and will update after my La Hague visit!!

  6. Nathan Wilson

    “…putting this infrastructure into place will strengthen public trust and show that we are responsible and ready to move forward with advanced technologies.”

    This sounds perilously close to “we should first do [insert a random nuclear safety improvement suggestion], after that we can move forward with our nuclear program.”

    The problem with that plan is that nuclear is already much better for the environment, human health, and human safety than any feasible combination of fossil fuels and renewables.

    We already have a de facto nuclear waste storage plan: store nuclear waste in a cooling pond for many years, and then move to on-site dry cask storage for many decades. This plan is much safer and more ecologically responsible than dumping the waste into the atmosphere (as is done for fossil fuel). It’s also surprising economical, for us and our descendants (compared to dumping fossil fuel waste into the air), and doesn’t use much land.

    Trying to create a centralized waste repository would simply create a battle field for an irreconcilable pro/anti-nuclear conflict (at a time when US politics is incapacitated by polarization).

  7. Suzy Baker

    Nathan- I am putting out some ideas about how to implement policy that is already in place. These ideas are based on fulfilling the recommendations of the BRC as well as international nonproliferation agreements. I would argue that failing to uphold these types of agreements in the past has a very negative impact on the industry as well. If you aren’t happy with the policy, you can take those issues up with the politicians- I’m just musing on how we actually complete what they’ve set out to do.

  8. bwambale john baptist

    Even us from the under developed countries say Uganda, will gain much from the project because your article has shown me more concern on our environment.

  9. James Greenidge

    Great article, Suzy…

    Re: “ALL the used rods into new fuel and DRASTICALLY cut the waste. It’s also the magic bullet that would convert anti-nuclear folks to pro-nuclear because “what about the waste?” is their rally cry and recycling completely solves that issue.”

    Only big thing is you’d be appalled that more than a majority of the public is totally clueless of this, in no small part to despicable fact-awareness blackouts by Greenpeace and FOE and the sympathetic media. Enlightening the public so is a losing battle unless nuclear advocacy can climb up on the same media/public exposure stage that the antis have enjoyed totally unchallenged for decades. For the life of me I just can’t understand why the Atomic Workers Unions and Nuclear Professional organizations at least haven’t splurged some of their coffee budgets for some TV/Web public education ads to help save their own skins! Hey, if PUPPY RESCUE can run NYC cable ads…

    Groan and sigh, keep up the good job!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  10. Nathan Wilson

    Rick, re your comment “… recycling used fuel rods … and DRASTICALLY cut the waste. ”

    We’ve often heard the criticism that light water reactors using the once-thru cycle only use 0.5% of the energy in the uranium ore. But recycling the fuel rods does not matter too much, as they only contain 10% of the energy; the other 90% is in the enrichment tails
    (starting with 100 kg of natural uranium which is 0.7% U235 and 99.3% U238, the enrichment process separate that into 10 kg of enriched fuel with 5% U235, and 90 kg of depleted tails with 0.2% U235.)

    The enrichment tails (and not the used fuel) are the giant waste stream crying out to be tapped. But they can only be utilized in a fast breeder reactor such as the IFR. Unlike light water reactors, which only consume the u235, fast breeders can use the much more common u238, and they do so efficiently (reducing ore requirements 100x). This means they can use the inexhaustible uranium that is dissolved in seawater.

    Efficient breeding is also possible using Earth’s enormous thorium resources, but the uranium cycle IFR is closer to commercialization.

  11. I predict that La Hague will be a real eye-opener for you. There, you will learn that “waste” nuclear fuel actually contains 96% of the original fissionable material, U-235.

    No it doesn’t; spent LWR fuel is burned from its original enrichment of 4.5% or so down to about 1% U-235.  What remains is about 95% of the original uranium, most of which is U-238.  (Some U-238 is bred to Pu and burned even in LWRs.)

    As Nathan said above, the way to use U-238 is in fast-spectrum breeder reactors.  One problem is that we’ve abandoned the technology by political fiat.  Another is the high fissile inventory required for FBRs, leading to very slow growth rates from breeding.  This just goes to show that FBRs are not THE solution, just an important part of one.