What to do with spent nuclear fuel?

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Anyone care for a swim? A pool at the closed nuclear plant in Zion where spent nuclear fuel is being stored. (Chicago Tribune file photo / May 29, 1998)

So, what are we supposed to do with spent nuclear power fuel? Rocket it into outer space?

Thanks to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Democratic PresidentsBill Clinton and Barack Obama and anti-nuke champions, tens of thousands of tons of dangerously radioactive fuel rods have been "temporarily" stored for up to 60 years on American nuclear power sites, many in Illinois. Many are stored like those in pools of water that are threatening to go dry at the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan.

Engineers and scientists say the spent fuel could pose a greater danger than a meltdown of the core reactors. Common sense and science dictate that spent fuel should be stored far away from the power plant, someplace permanent that wouldn't magnify the consequences of a catastrophicaccident.

Why aren't they? Politics.

Scientific studies concluded that the best burial site is under Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. Congress approved and required ComEd and other nuclear power customers to pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund to finance disposal. So far, we have coughed up more than $35 billion, of which $11 billion or so has been swallowed up by Yucca Mountain.


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The site was to begin accepting the material in 1998, but Clinton and then Obama, caving in to parochial interests and anti-nuke zealots, threw up years of roadblocks. (President George W. Bush supported Yucca Mountain as the nation's first long-term underground site for high-level radioactive waste.) Reid proudly pronounced the project dead last month as Obama zeroed it out in his 2012 budget. The president also formed a blue-ribbon commission to study -- again -- the best alternative for the nation's nuclear future, including disposal of the waste.

But no more studies are needed. There's a technology, called the Integral Fast Reactor, that could produce abundant, safe, environmentally friendly and less expensive nuclear power. IFR supporters said it would provide an inexhaustible and domestic fuel supply, while solving the spent-fuel problem.

Argonne National Laboratory, whose baby it was, demonstrated at its Idaho reactor development facility that the technology could safely shut down power plants in both the Chernobyl- and Three Mile Island-type accidents.

The key was a new metallic fuel alloy that could be cleaned and used again and again in the reactor. Charles Till, former director of civilian nuclear power development at Argonne, said the technology, using a common metal refining process, would extend fuel supplies more than a hundred-fold, while slashing the volume and lifetime of the radioactive waste. As a bonus, the fuel had no weapons value.

Despite IFR's promise, the newly elected Clinton and his energy secretary, Hazel O'Leary, with the support of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., successfully torpedoed the program. Illinois Democrats -- the then-Rep. Dick Durbin and Sens. Carol Moseley Braun and Paul Simon -- cognizant of IFR's jobs, first supported the project, but later joined other Democrats to cancel funding. They were for it before they were against it.

As if the matter hadn't been studied enough: In 2001 the Department of Energy launched yet another study to evaluate the 19 best reactor designs on 27 different criteria. Guess which was ranked best? The IFR.

Obviously, the IFR would not have solved the spent-fuel problems in the old reactors revealed by Japan's troubles. So, back to the original question: What do we do with the spent fuel? In the face of the gross politicization of the project and three wasted decades, the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, proposed the creation of a self-sustaining, quasi-government corporation to administer the fund and manage the program. And 64 House Republicans have endorsed legislation that would, while re-energizing nuclear construction, reopen the Yucca Mountain option.

Exelon Corp., which operates nuclear reactors here and elsewhere, says that it can safely shut down its reactors in emergencies, and that its sites have sufficient "portable, high-capacity pumps to ensure the pools remain filed" with water to keep the rods cool. The anti-nuke crowd obviously doesn't agree, having challenged in court a recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission finding that, in effect, concluded that on-site storage is safe, for now.

We can't go back more than a half-century to pretend that nuclear power plants weren't built. Even though the anti-nuke coalition of Democrats, liberals and environmentalists seems to think so. If they weren't living in such a dream world, maybe they would have come up with a better solution.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

Comments

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  • With the IFR, it's not waste. It's a resource for IFR fuel.

  • THE ONLY SANE THING IS TO LOAD THE SPENT NUCLEAR MATERIALS INTO A ROCKET AND LAUNCH IT AIMED TO HIT THE SUN. WE SPEND BILLIONS ON NON ESSENTIAL WAR AND SPACE EXPLORATIONS, when we should shift our Priorties. How can any EARTH BOUND STORAGE BE SAFE? we see what's happening in Japan. When will we ever learn that to shut pandoras box, unselfish wisdom needs to be enacted. -Peter Rosen -

  • It's been studied. Safety concerns were the biggest worry. What would happen in case of a rocket failure and the payload crashed? Although, we haven't heard of any rockets falling out of the sky. Maybe it should be re-evaluated.

  • The "energy lobby" representing the folks who built and run most of our nuclear power plants, hustled us into decisions with which we are now stuck. We did not choose the option chosen in France, to reprocess "burned out" nuclear fuel. We pile up the burned out fuel in rods. What to do with them? I believe that Yucca Mountain offers the best option we have for long-term safe storage. That is not an opinion that has universal acceptance in Nevada. My friends there--in Las Vegas and Reno--are people I have known since the days of above-ground nuclear device testing in the 1950s. They see the rest of the country once again inflicting a nuclear option on Nevada because "it's mostly desert anyway". We should have an objective national discussion leading to rational nuclear energy policy. It is not likely to happen. The current trend in Congress is to dismiss and/or disrespect scientists who could provide science-based advice because scientists are "arrogant" and "elitist".

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