After Yucca Mountain: What do you do with 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste?

(image by Frank Friedrichs

by Adam Windram 

The 99-strong fleet of nuclear power plants in the United States generates nearly 2,200 metric tons of nuclear waste per year, in addition to the 70,000 metric tons currently stored in sites around the country. However, the U.S. currently lacks a permanent repository for that nuclear waste. Most of the spent nuclear fuel rods are stored proximate to the power plant, first in specialized cooling pools and then—because space started running out in the late 1970s—into dry casks, which are steel cylinders surrounded by concrete and filled with inert gas to provide radiation shielding. Such “backyard storage” at nuclear power plants is hardly an ideal solution. Unfortunately, since the Department of Energy (DOE) scrapped the planned repository at Yucca Mountain in 2010, the government has failed to find other permanent siting options due to the challenge of getting a community to buy into a nuclear waste site. If a permanent repository is not feasible in the near future, other options should be considered, both in waste storage and in reducing the flow of waste generated each year. 

The DOE faces primarily political and social challenges to siting a permanent nuclear waste repository. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada failed not due to safety concerns or ineffective design, but because the State of Nevada (and in particular Senator Harry Reid) opposed it. After scrapping the Yucca Mountain plan, the DOE modeled a new plan after the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future report, which recommended a consent-based approach to choosing a repository site. The new approach requires buy-in from many stakeholders, including state and local governments and community residents. While this approach has seen success in some countries, it has failed in others, and it could take many years to find a willing partner. The Commission’s other key recommendation was that the best option for permanent nuclear waste storage is a geologic repository, like Yucca Mountain. To meet these recommendations, Congress would have to pass a new law authorizing a new permanent geologic repository, because the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (as amended in 1987) only authorizes the Yucca Mountain site. Legislation would also be required for the DOE to construct its planned interim storage facilities, which would temporarily hold nuclear waste for future transport to a permanent facility. Such a law is currently in Congress: the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015. However, it was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in March 2015, with no reported action since.

Given Congressional gridlock that could hold up passage of the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015 and the challenges of finding a community willing to site interim and permanent nuclear waste disposal facilities, what other options could the DOE explore? Other countries such as France have special facilities for extracting uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, which can then be reused in conventional reactors. However, the DOE has so far avoided that approach due to cost, commercial viability and the security risk posed by plutonium (the key ingredient in nuclear weapons). One option is a “fast-breeder reactor” that can either produce more plutonium or burn it up and, at least in theory, recycle its fuel until all the plutonium is gone. But that still leaves spent uranium to deal with, the technology is not commercially proven, and it poses a security risk if the plutonium is stolen during storage or transport. In addition, it uses liquid sodium instead of water as a coolant, which is inherently dangerous as any contact with water would ignite the sodium, starting a fire. Another possibility is the molten salt reactor, a design proposed by the MIT-spawned Transatomic startup that uses spent nuclear fuel and a lithium fluoride-uranium fluoride salt that is non-combustible. However, such technology, even if proven commercially viable, is years away as Transatomic’s design is still in experimental stages.

Organizations opposing Yucca Mountain, such as the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), have proposed alternative options for permanent nuclear waste storage. Their report recommends geologic repositories so long as they meet three siting criteria: (1) water resources around the site are not likely to be used, and thus will not pose a hazard to people; (2) the site and surrounding area have no commercially valuable resources; and (3) elements and minerals are more easily accessed at other sites in the region. Yucca Mountain fails to meet the first and third criteria, as it has accessible groundwater and is rich with commercially valuable minerals. Another option is sub-seabed waste disposal, which would be effective insofar as sequestering the nuclear waste far from human habitation. IEER mentions a site in the Pacific that is possible, but they do not mention that construction of a sub-seabed waste disposal facility faces a number of potential domestic and international legal hurdles, so for the time being it is likely not a workable option for the DOE. A third and final option IEER presents is storing the waste below the biosphere, in boreholes drilled into the upper mantle in seismically stable areas. This approach would keep the waste far from human habitation and also be extremely difficult for those hoping to use the waste for illicit purposes to access. However, the technology for drilling boreholes that deep into the mantle does not yet exist, and there are questions of borehole stability, effectively preventing groundwater seepage and keeping magma from flowing to the surface via the boreholes.

Thus far it appears that the DOE has few options for a new permanent nuclear waste repository aside from above-ground sequestration in accessible geologic formations. Other approaches are either beyond the realm of current technology or politically unfeasible due to costs and security risks. For the present, it looks like the DOE will have to hang its hopes on Congress enacting the Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2015, so that its plans for finding a site via consensus-building can get underway.

Adam Windram is a Master’s candidate in Public Policy at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.

Editor’s Note: Comments may be moderated for content. 

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