Nuclear Waste: Whose Problem is it Any Way?

The current state of our nuclear industry generates a total of 2,000 – 3,000 metric tons of nuclear fuel a year. Over the past 40 years we have accumulated 76,430 metric tons of used nuclear fuel, coming from the creation of nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and the materials used manufacture these products. Within 90 miles of Athens there is approximately 36 million gallons of high-level waste at the Savannah River Site, SRS, (outside of Aiken, SC) and Plant Vogtle will continue to contribute to our countries nuclear waste once reactors 3 and 4 come online.

nuclear storage

In 2002, Congress approved the construction the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository 80 miles outside of Las Vegas. This construction was designated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1987, to have the DOE build and manage such a facility. Yucca Mountain Repository was to replace the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, built-in 1999, which was designed for low-level waste. In 2008, the DOE successfully attained licensing to build Yucca Mountain after proving the viability of using it as a storage site, but in 2011 funding was cut for the program. The site currently sits abandoned with no waste tunnels, receiving and handling facilities, or waste containers built. Our country does not currently have a national repository that can store nuclear waste, so where is it now? Until a repository can be created, all the spent fuel and waste must be stored at the 121 locations across the country. At Vogtle, the spent fuel is stored in big tanks of cool water until it can be processed. At the Savannah River Site,  liquid nuclear waste is encased in glass and stored in large canisters beneath the ground. With no repository coming online any time soon, this has caused states to take an initiative with on-site storage. When SRS began converting its waste into glass, it had a max on site storage capacity of 3,000 canisters. Renovations are currently being made to double the capacity to 6,000 canisters in lieu of the stalled national repository.

Many advocates of the repository claim that it’s a matter of national security to have nuclear waste stored in a centralized location, one where it is easy ensure the safety of the public. Nevada is very much against the idea of hosting a repository, as one can expect, even when the site is on federally owned land. The Nevada state government claims that the site can lead to irreversible environmental damage such as contamination of groundwater. Nevada began preparing to fight against the project when President Trump recently proposed a $120 million-dollar increase in the budget to restart the licensing process of Yucca Mountain.

The revised 2008 cost for building Yucca Mountain was $96.2 billion USD, which included the $13.5 billion already invested into the project. A new budget for the project has yet to be created, and it is probably going to be larger now due to lack of continued maintenance and construction. So, are we saving money by not building such a facility? Well the answer is: sort of. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 required the DOE to begin removing fuel from reactor sites by 1998. Since then there has been $5 billion in court-awarded damage settlements as of 2015. Projections are that by 2022, $29 billion will be paid to the companies who are storing it on site. The companies who store this waste are incentivized to store their waste in their home states. Why would they lobby for repository if they can make money by producing power and storing waste? So, whose problem is it anyways: the federal government, states, energy companies, or your average college student?

Questions:

  1. If nuclear energy is the way of the future, why are we not talking about how we are going to manage our nuclear waste?
  2. Do you think a national repository is a matter of national security and is it worth the cost to build one?
  3. We have the policy set forth in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, so what should we do next to manage our waste?
  4. Should states be responsible for the waste they produce due to the government’s inability to provide a solution?

 

John Oliver had a bit where he talked a lot about nuclear waste and how it is a problem. It’s a pretty good video that summarizes the issues along with an attempt at some humor.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwY2E0hjGuU

 

Resources:

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15 thoughts on “Nuclear Waste: Whose Problem is it Any Way?

  1. Interesting read! This summer I actually had the opportunity to visit the Saltsone Facility on DOE’s SRS, which is responsible for the low-level radioactive waste on site. In response to your questions, I would argue that we are talking about managing waste, but that it is not a topic that is broadly publicized. I agree that before my trip to SRS it seemed that nuclear waste management was being brushed off, but after witnessing the infrastructure and processes that go into waste management- I think we are doing the best we can at the moment. Personally, I think that national repository is a matter of national security and, yes, it is worth the costs if we are going to continue a pursuit of nuclear power. I am not sure of the current amount of R&D within nuclear waste management, but maybe increasing R&D could lead to better solutions. I do not feel that states alone should be responsible for nuclear waste produced within the state, unless there is an in-state team of waste professionals possibly appointed by DOE or other nuclear waste professionals. As I mentioned, I think that nuclear waste is a matter of national security and, not that I think state governments are incapable, but that there is not much room for hiccups in regard to nuclear waste. In short, I think that a national or even international waste management strategy would be better at preventing accidents.

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    1. That’s really cool that you got to observe the Saltstone Facility and gain some insight into the nuclear waste world! Your conclusions based on your knowledge and visit to the facility correspond with what I have come to conclude just through research and class lectures. A national repository does need to be constructed and maintained at the highest possible level. Arguments against such involving potential contamination into the groundwater are fair, but seemingly misguided when one considers that current storage methods have just as much capacity to contaminate if not more so as on site storage at the moment would affect multitudes of people over versus a repository out in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada. When it comes down to the actual policy push to build the Yucca Mountain site, public opinion matters and the need for proper education on the topic is needed in order to get the proper outcome – and John Oliver (as explained in the link below) did not do a good enough job covering the whole of the topic.
      https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2017/08/24/please-john-oliver-please-talk-to-a-real-nuclear-scientist/#5df1ea1a18f5

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  2. I think it’s important to have a visual on how little waste nuclear power generates comparatively. From the National Energy Institute, if you stack the entire industry’s nuclear waste from the past four decades end to end, it would cover a football field about eight yards deep. This is entirely manageable compared to the EPA estimated 130 million tons of coal ash generated just in 2014. Short term, I do not believe that nuclear storage is a national security risk. The dry casks that spent fuel is stored in are extremely durable, block the harmful gamma and neutron radiation, and are built to last many decades. Long term though, I think space for onsite storage may be at a premium and eventually the integrity of the casts may be in question. Because of this, I think follow through of Yucca Mountain is necessary. Having a designated place for US spent fuel would be create a consolidated location for hazardous waste and allow for consistent and continuous monitoring to take place. However, barring federal government involvement, it might come down to each state deciding where it sends its spent fuel to, similar to how environmental policy has come from states. This might create innovative solutions, but also might create some conflict between states who sell their nuclear generated electricity across their borders.

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  3. I think that the problems of nuclear waste are not being handled because of public opinion. The public is not highly educated engineers or physicists, so many people rely on news coverage, which we already know is biased. Also, a lot of resources have been pulled from nuclear waste management, which may be another cause for the mismanagement. I think all ties go back to public opinion. If the public were more educated on the topic, then there would be more of a focus on nuclear power and waste management.

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this blog post right after reading the blog about nuclear power plants construction being slowed due to its history. I believe the waste should remain stored on site and controlled by each facility. I believe a central location makes it too much of a target in the long run. I think its better to have a small failure rather than risking a failure where all of our waste is located. For handling our waste, I believe that at some point when our rocket technology is reliable enough that we just launch the radioactive waste into space and put it on trajectory to the sun.

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  5. One thing that scares me is transportation of nuclear waste. Even if we started shipping the waste to Yucca Mountain, how would we ship it? By train? By plane? It all seems so dangerous. It makes me wonder if there are ways to recycle the waste. I just don’t see anything else effectively being done with the waste. And I think Nevada is rightfully apprehensive in receiving all of the country’s waste.

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  6. This was an interesting read. I don’t know much about nuclear energy/waste, but to answer your question, I think the reason why we are not talking about it now is because nothing major has happened yet. That being said, it’s better to be prepared than wait until the last minute to fix catastrophic problems. I think that the repository should be a matter of national security and that it’s worth the cost to build one.

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  7. I agree with a comment above that talks about the public opinion of nuclear waste and how it affects them. The issue with Yucca mountain is no one wants nuclear waste “in their backyard” because they are scared of potential radiation and runoff, etc. The reality is that you would gain more exposure to radiation just from sleeping next to someone in bed your whole life than you would from living in Nevada near Yucca mountain. This public hysteria became known around Aiken, sc when residents within a 50 mile radius of the nuclear site began complaining of illnesses and wanted to point the blame to the nuclear site. SRS actually visited the community and did radioactive exposure testing to prove to the residents that they were receiving literally no radiation from the site that actively transports nuclear waste from end to end. If these residents weren’t exposed, there surely wouldn’t be any exposure from sealed canisters that are encased in shielded cells of concrete. During my internship at SRS I was a systems engineer in the lab and was within 50 ft of nuclear waste on a regular basis. At the end of my internship we were tested and I showed zero exposure to radiation during my 3 months. The security measures in the united states are so rigorous and thorough, it is nearly impossible for exposure or a meltdown. The hysteria about nuclear is derived from the meltdown in Chernobyl where the regulations are WAY less strict than in the United States.

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  8. Thanks for this post, it was super interesting! As far as how I feel about if it is worth it to build a national repository, I’m still not sure. However, in this situation I definitely think it is much better to plan ahead for this issue rather than let it let it get out of hand and then determine the best way to manage it after it has already become a major problem. It seems that taking the original upfront cost and effort may be worth it to avoid the potentially even more costly and difficult cleanup after the fact. As we saw in a Fierce Green Fire with Love Canal, it was much more difficult, expensive, dangerous and controversial to deal with the waste years after it had been mismanaged rather than to correctly handle it originally.

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  9. It’s a big problem of what to do with this waste and I can understand why groups would try to fight having this waste brought to their backyard. However keeping waste where it is is not a viable long term solution and will only exasperate the eventual clean up operation when it finally does come.

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  10. Like others have stated here, I understand where Nevada is coming from not wanting to host the repository, but I feel it is necessary for the greater good. To expand on transportation, hazardous materials travel the interstates everyday and rarely cause a problem. With that being said, personally I would get a little better piece on mind if they were transported by rail. This is not because train accidents are unheard of, but they are less common than accidents on roadways.

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  11. The proliferation of nuclear waste holds a similar place in society as many environmental problems are destined to face. That is the whole “out of sight, out of mind” thought process. Most people don’t become concerned with this because the do not “have” to. Its not an immediate threat, yet. It is generally disposed of in a socially unobtrusive fashion. It doesn’t directly cost people any money. But this is also why I think states should be responsible for their own waste. The state level would be closer to its constituents and also control its groundwater resources, the main possible pollution source. On researching this further I found the only death associated with civilian nuclear waste so far occurred in 2004, when an anti-nuclear protester chained himself to the tracks and was run over by a train shipping nuclear waste from France to Germany. The anti-nuclear groups said that his death highlighted the dangers of nuclear waste transport — that despite claims that security was high all the way along the track, no one had spotted his presence. Another subject out of sight and out of mind.

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  12. I really appreciated your blog topic and looking at nuclear waste not just from the energy production side but from the waste side too. In order to gain further insight on this issue, I went to Dr. David Gattie’s blog to see what he had to say since this is one of his favorite topics and areas of research. To start off, he stands by nuclear power with good reasons that I definitely agree with. In this blog post I was looking at, he stated that both a national storage place (Yucca Mountain) for nuclear waste and utilizing nuclear energy as a zero-carbon transition state were matters of national security. In this particular blog post (link attached below), he discusses while America was shutting down two of its nuclear sites, China was plugging a new one into their power grid. China’s progressivism towards nuclear could ultimately lead to them taking over as a global leader which would result in power shifts and endangerment to national security.
    https://davidgattieblog.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/nuclear-power-in-america-all-eyes-are-on-georgia-and-plant-vogtle/

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  13. I enjoyed reading about this article. Nuclear energy is one of the biggest questions of the future and the main issue is where to put our waste. I don’t believe a national repository is necessary because it would cost a ridiculous sum of money but I do believe the federal government should be involved in helping clean up. The energy provided helps fuel the country and therefore the government should be responsible for the waste produced. There should be depositories in states that have nuclear power plants to avoid having to move the waste.

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  14. While we might not have a lot of nuclear waste right now, which makes it possible for the waste to be stored on site at the production facilities, the longer the plants run, the more waste we’ll accumulate. If we embrace nuclear as the zero-carbon base load of the future nuclear waste storage will become a much larger issue. One possible way we can reduce the amount we produce would be recycling the waste. The World Nuclear Association estimates that 25-30% more energy could be extracted from “spent” fuel, which in turn reduces the volume of high-level waste to be disposed of to 1/5 it’s original volume. (http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/fuel-recycling/processing-of-used-nuclear-fuel.aspx). It seems to me that we could at least diminish the urgency of finding a better storage solution if we stop producing so much waste in the first place.

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