|The UK's idealistic view of how to|
deal with spent fuel
In the U.S next week the Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission will issue a final report that will fail to set a strategy for dealing with the nation's spent nuclear fuel.
There are different reasons for these decisions which are explored here. What they have in common is that both governments are composed of people who outside of their offices have the usual allotments of common sense, but seem to lose their collective grip on it once in office.
Plan for Sellafield rejected
The Guardian newspaper reports Jan 24 that plans to use two 300 MW sodium cooled fast reactors to burn 82 tonnes of surplus plutonium has been rejected by the NDA. According to the newspaper, it reviewed internal emails from the government agency. An anti-nuclear activist obtained them under a Freedom of Information request and shared the messages with the newspaper. The newspaper reports that the NDA's reason for rejecting the technology is that it regards it as "immature and commercially unproven."
The agency's managers also reportedly said in their electronic communications that they felt the reactor would create large amounts of plutonium contaminated waste and increase the risk that terrorists might access it to make nuclear weapons.
Last November, GE submitted an unsolicited offer to the NDA to use its new technology which is based on the design of the Integral Fast Reactor first deployed at the Argonne National Laboratory - West site in Idaho. It was in continuous development for several decades until it was cancelled by the Clinton Administration in the mid-1990s.
In addition to technology risks, the government also reportedly demanded a price cap on the project of $3.9 billion. It isn't clear how it came up with that number.
The NDA then sent an email to the U.K. Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC).
It reportedly said that while the NDA had carried out a "high level assessment" of the PRISM technology, it concluded that the technology had not yet been demonstrated in a commercial setting and that it was not developed enough for the agency to commit to using it.
Perhaps most significantly, the NDA reportedly said the PRISM reactor would not be ready to run until 2050. The agency says it wants a solution sooner than that date.
Eric Loewen, the chief engineer for the PRISM reactor, disputed that last claim pointing out the technology has 30 years of experience under its belt. He may get a chance to make his case. The DECC said in an email response to the NDA it remains open to "technically mature proposals."
In the meantime, the government maintains that its best option is to use the plutonium to make mixed oxide fuel. More than 30 reactors world wide use MOX which typically, is about 5% PU-239 and the rest U238. There are differences depending on whether the plutonium is weapons grade or taken from spent fuel burned in commercial reactors.
The MOX is a good source of export revenues for the government which also may be the reason it prefers that option.
For more details on the PRISM reactor proposal see my report at ANS Nuclear Cafe published 12/22/11.
Update 01/26/12: According to one source, the UK NDA says it is still considering GE-Hitachi fast reactors at Sellafield for plutonium disposition.
Blue Ribbon Commission to punt
Instead, due to election year politics, the BRC, which has been called the "do nothing before the 2012 election commission" will basically tune up its draft report released for comment last July.
The Blue Ribbon Commission’s draft report contained little that could not be written on the day of its first meeting in January 2010. The draft report calls for several well understood actions.
The situation could remain unchanged for decades or longer. Spent fuel can be moved to dry cask storage after cooling off for about five years. The dry casks have expected lifetimes of up to 60 years under the NRC's current waste confidence decision.
Not satisfied with kicking cans
|Dry cask storage. Image: U.S. NRC|
The New York Times reports Jan 24 that a coalition of nuclear energy industry groups thinks the government can and should do better. According to the newspaper, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main trade association of the reactor operators, was joined by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition.
All three have endorsed development of interim storage sites for spent fuel. Currently, almost all spent fuel is stored at the reactor sites where it was created in the first place.The three groups also want a new agency such as the one proposed by now former Ohio Sen. George Voinovitch. As an off-the-books agency, it would be funded by the $25 billion nuclear waste fund and take title to and manage the nation's inventory of commercial spent nuclear fuel. Finding an interim storage site, and moving it there, would be the first order of business. Recycling the fuel could come later.
So far the Obama administration has shown little interest in the idea. That head in the sand stance is likely to continue until it wins a second term. As the White House sees things, there is no sense in aggravating the voters in Nevada until after November this year.
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