As small modular nuclear reactors move closer to reality in the US, the management and disposal of their highly radioactive waste should be a national priority. Forty years after the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, there is “no clear path forward for the siting, licensing and construction of geological repositories” for nuclear waste, according to the US National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently. report.
The good news is that there is already a clear strategy for managing and disposing of this highly radioactive material. The bad news is that the US government is still not seriously pursuing that plan.
The National Academies report tells us that new or advanced reactor designs—the potential saviors of the nuclear industry—will not save the need for geological repositories, deep-mining facilities for permanent nuclear waste disposal. In some cases, these new reactors may make it worse by creating more waste that is more expensive to manage, new types of complex waste, or just more waste, period. Before we tackle that problem, we must first deal with the large amount of waste we have already produced.
The United States, which was at the forefront of nuclear waste management in the 1980s and 1990s, has now fallen behind the pack. About 88,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors remain stranded at reactor sites, and this number is increasing by about 2,000 metric tons each year. These 77 sites are in 35 states and threaten to become de facto permanent disposal facilities. Without a geological repository, there is no way forward for the final disposal of this highly radioactive material. Storing it in pools and dry casks at reactor sites is a temporary solution; it is safe for many years, but thousands of years are not required to isolate this radioactive material from the environment. The current US policy of indefinite storage at a centralized location is not a viable solution, as it shifts the cost and risk to future generations.
Starting now, the nation must follow a path already laid out for a national repository of nuclear waste. The 2012 presidential Blue Ribbon Commission and an international panel of experts organized by Stanford and George Washington Universities in 2018 proposed a new, independent, waste management and disposal organization with funding outside the annual Congressional appropriations and restrictive budgetary rules. The Blue Ribbon Commission called for the creation of a new federal corporation, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, for this organization, and the Stanford/GWU panel sought to replicate independent, utility-owned, nonprofit organizations based on successful programs. in other countries, such as Sweden and Finland. These organizations are funded by the charges on electricity produced by nuclear power, and are still regulated by independent nuclear regulators. Both panels agreed that there was a need for independent organization and finance.
The nations that followed this blueprint are now facing their own nuclear waste problem. Sweden’s non-profit SKB announced last year that it will build a deep geological repository at Östhammar to permanently dispose of spent fuel from its commercial nuclear reactors. In Finland, construction of a geological repository began in May 2021, with plans to accept spent nuclear fuel by the mid-2020s. It’s not just the Nordic countries that are making progress: France, Canada and Switzerland are all pushing towards applications for permits to start construction.
A US waste management organization must be a reliable and capable agency that is well funded and well staffed. Sweden’s SKB has spent decades of effort in public participation and technical site analysis and is now reaping the benefits. The US Department of Energy, the designated repository enforcer established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, instead suffers from leadership and priorities that change with each administration, as well as a history of broken promises that has left little trust the community that it is up. the job.
The vast majority of successful overseas deposit programs are conducted by independent corporations established by the nuclear industry—outside of government. The industry is best placed to manage the end of the nuclear fuel cycle, from the release of spent fuel from the reactor, through storage, shipping and final geological disposal.
Another universal requirement is the consent of people living nearby to establish an acceptable geological repository. A community, tribe or state’s decision to host one will have various motivations. A municipality may volunteer because of the jobs that will last over the long life of the project (probably over 100 years) or improvements to roads, schools or other infrastructure. Some may feel the need to contribute to the greater good of society, especially if they have benefited from the electricity produced by nuclear power, as is the case in Sweden.
The 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission recommended that communities should decide for themselves what consent would look like to ensure a successful storage decision. Indeed, Canada is following this approach. The two final communities in their location process will handle the decision differently, one by referendum, the other by decision of the elected council.
Affected communities will need the resources to hire their own experts to validate claims made by the designated nuclear waste management agency. In fact, Sweden not only provided such funds, but also provided money to public interest groups opposed to the repository, as part of the effort to produce a strong safety case for Östhammar.
Assured finances are also crucial. In the United States, Congress has not appropriated funds for its Yucca Mountain nuclear waste program since 2010. In fact, the ratepayer fund collection and appropriation process, now over $40 billion, has made these funds basically giving Congress so bad. inaccessible. It is appalling that this money, which is actually collected from electricity ratepayers, rather than taxpayers, is being used to offset the national debt.
Even if the US starts today, it will take decades to locate, design and build a facility to dispose of its stockpile of nuclear waste. That process must be accelerated now, before the reactors we need for their electricity run out of space for their growing inventories of highly radioactive waste.
This is an article of opinion and analysis, and the views expressed by the author(s) are not necessarily those of American Science.