Used Nuclear Fuel Transport, Disposal – Where to Now?

by Will Davis from the 2017 ANS Winter Meeting, Washington, D.C.

A packed room was on hand for this morning’s panel session on Used Nuclear Fuel Management, and following the interesting presentations by several speakers the crowd took part in an energetic and, at some times, lively discussion on where we are as a nation and as an industry on the issues of storage of used fuel and the potential for creation of storage or even, possibly, a repository.  Given the present political environment, there’s motion on the latter, which led to some of the liveliness of the discussion.  We’ll give just some of the remarks made by presenters below.

Ray Furstenau, of the US Department of Energy observed that it’s clear to everyone at the DOE that there’s a present and palpable need to resolve the uncertainties caused by the management of waste (UNF or Used Nuclear Fuel) and that “the Department of Energy is committed to resolve these uncertainties.”  As Furstenau pointed out there needs to be motion on a number of fronts, including not just the long term disposition of the UNF but also that important interim step of transporting it from various distant sites around the US to whatever is set up, whether that be an interim repository or, perhaps, a permanent geological one.  (As an aside, all present seemed in agreement that the ultimate final solution must be a long-term geological repository for high level waste.)

To the issue of moving that fuel through various communities, Furstenau remarked that there “are no known issues with shock or vibration (to the fuel) in the transportation of even very long-stored fuel” and added that “in any potential accident such as a drop, the forces experienced are all well below the yield in all aspects” – meaning that the fuel inside the shipping casks won’t break.  Of course, neither will the shipping casks, he also said.

What’s perhaps most important to the DOE right now, Furstenau said, is that we know that “we cannot just continue to kick this spent fuel can down the road,” and of course the hope in many quarters is that the recent attempts by Secretary of Energy Perry to get Yucca Mountain back into the licensing process in order to give that “can” a place to be permanently disposed.

Tyler Owens, Clerk of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee pointed out quite rightly that so long as the House keeps trying to appropriate money just to restart Yucca Mountain while the Senate tries to get a pilot interim storage program going the result will be no motion on either.  He pointed out that while there is presently money for Yucca in the budget, in the Senate there is little real urgency to get anything accomplished.  He observed that last year, the Energy and Water bill was offered to the Senate as a stand-alone bill and that not one Senator attempted to offer any amendment for Yucca, which would have been the time and the bill to do that.  He also interestingly pointed out that the last real Senate vote on Yucca Mountain was years ago, so that there are only 22 Senators still left now from that time.  For most of the Senate, then, this is a very new issue.

Alison Macfarlane, former NRC Chair and now working with George Washington University, offered some insights as to what a truly consent-based siting process for a long term repository should look like, based upon intensive study performed between her university and Stanford.  In fact, the research effort, she said, took three years to look at how to fix “this essentially stuck issue.”  The plain fact, she said, is that no repository can be built unless there’s a truly consent-based approach – and that means not just informing, but rather engaging with and empowering people whose community will host whatever facility is conceived.

Macfarlane again acknowledged that there’s very broad industry and government consensus that the final answer is not above-ground interim storage that just gets made permanent but rather a true, geologic repository.  To that end, she feels that a new non-governmental organization must be created to manage the used fuel transport and storage; a nonprofit corporation staffed and funded by utilities which can get things done faster and, very likely, much less expensively than any government entity.  Certainly, she said, the whole process of consent must be examined and defined before any such project can launch, so that it’s clear what the organization must do in order to win the trust and acceptance of local communities when a site is selected.

Briefly citing figures, Macfarlane did point out the growing UNF problem:  Now, we have about 80,000 metric tons of this material all over the US in various sites (some of which no longer have nuclear plants operating) with about 25,000 metric tons of that having been moved to dry cask storage.  Annually, she said, we generate roughly 2,000 more metric tons.

Macfarlane made many other fascinating and insightful comments, but closed by saying that there’s a real case to be made for privatizing the handling of waste transport and storage through what she called “NUCO” – the nonprofit, industry operated corporation concept that would have to be set up to legally take the fuel (which is another major issue.)  Critical to that process, she asserts, is the engagement of the public – and its empowerment.  “No scheme will go forward no matter what without the public being a part of the decision making process,” she said – and given what seems to have happened in Nevada where a small but heavily populated zone of the state is against Yucca, she may have an extremely important point.

Will DavisWill Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.  His popular Twitter account is @atomicnews.

3 thoughts on “Used Nuclear Fuel Transport, Disposal – Where to Now?

  1. Boganboy

    The nuclear industry has a very useful excuse for any problems with UNF, since they can always blame the government. It seems improbable to me that they’d want to have the mess dumped back in their laps.

  2. Steve Nesbit

    Thanks for the good story, Will. I think all of the panelists did an excellent job. In addition to the points you noted above, Dr. John Kessler led a discussion of the U.S. waste program in the context of international efforts, and David Blee of the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council extolled the virtues of the H.R. 3053 bill “Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act” which is expected to be introduced on the floor of the House soon.

  3. John Tanner

    My belief is that all possible steps should be taken simultaneously. Anything which can be done, whether licensing of Yucca, centralized interim storage, and/or anything else, will be psychologically important in countering the attitude that “we don’t know what to do with nuclear waste.”