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Category — Spent Nuclear Fuel

U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere [Part V: Lessons]

Part 1 of this series explored the historical context of the U.S. nuclear waste storage policy. Part II and Part III looked at the failed Salt Vault and Yucca Mountain projects, respectively. Part IV reviewed the legal and political fallout from the Yucca Mountain failure.  In this final post, we review the past failed attempts to reprocess nuclear fuel in the U.S. and examine the global state-of-the-art reprocessing plants now operating or under construction.

Reprocessing and Recycling in the U.S.

The reprocessing of nuclear fuel first began in the U.S. in January 1943. The Bismuth Phosphate Precipitation Process was used for recovering macroscopic quantities of plutonium. The REDuction-OXidation (REDOX) process was the first successful solvent extraction process to recover both uranium and plutonium; it was further refined into the Plutonium and URanium EXtraction (PUREX) process, which has become the most common and fully commercialized liquid-liquid extraction process for the treatment of spent nuclear fuel (SNF).

In order to support a self-sufficient commercial nuclear power industry in the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, circa 1946 to 1974)—the predecessor regulatory agency to the NRC (1974 to present) and the Department of Energy (circa 1977 to present)—encouraged the transfer of nuclear fuel reprocessing from the federal government to private industry. The three privately owned reprocessing plants constructed were the Western New York Nuclear Service Center (West Valley, N.Y.), Midwest Fuel Recovery Plant (Morris, Ill.), and the Barnwell Nuclear Fuel Plant (Barnwell, S.C.). [Read more →]

July 13, 2010   2 Comments

U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere [Part IV: Picking Up the Pieces]

Part I of this series reviewed the historical context of the U.S. nuclear waste storage policy. Part II and Part III historically reviewed the ill-fated Salt Vault and Yucca Mountain projects, respectively.  This post reviews the legal and political fallout from the Yucca Mountain failure, and Part V tomorrow will explore failed attempts to reprocess nuclear fuel in the U.S. and examine the global state-of-the-art reprocessing plants now operating or under construction.

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1. View of the above-ground support structures and north and south portals at the now-defunct Yucca Mountain repository. Source: Department of Energy/Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (DOE/OCRWM)

The nuclear industry is unique among energy producers in its contractual commitment to cover the full costs for managing its waste. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982 directed utilities to levy fees on electricity generated by nuclear power and to pay those fees into a federal Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) that was to be used to develop and operate a national repository. In return for the payment of fees, the NWPA directed the federal government to accept ownership and begin disposing of the spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and other high-level waste (HLW) no later than January 31, 1998. Those fees included the cost of transporting SNF to the repository.

Since 1983, consumers of electricity from nuclear power plants have paid approximately $32 billion into the NWF. Consumers in Alabama and Georgia, for example, have sent more than $1 billion to the NWF and continue to contribute over $44 million a year. The current balance in the NWF exceeds approximately $22 billion, and consumers nationwide are contributing about an additional $750 million a year. The difference between total collections and the current balance is roughly equal to the approximately $9 billion already spent on preparing the Yucca Mountain site to date. [Read more →]

July 12, 2010   1 Comment

The U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere [Part III: Yucca Mountain]

Part I explored the historical context of the U.S. nuclear waste storage policy, while Part II reviewed the 1960s Salt Vault project.

This post looks at the legislative history of the ill-fated Yucca Mountain repository and the formation of a committee to explore alternative storage sites (again). In Part IV, we will look at some of the legal and political repercussions of Yucca Mountain’s failure.  Finally, in Part V, we explore failed attempts to reprocess nuclear fuel in the U.S. and examine the global state-of-the-art reprocessing plants now operating or under construction.

The Retrievable Surface Storage Facility

The AEC announced plans (circa May/June 1972) to construct an engineered, at-grade Retrievable Surface Storage Facility (RSSF) to be used until a permanent geological repository would be available. The plan was to locate the RSSF at an AEC or federal site in the western U.S. However, the environmental impact statement (EIS) issued by the AEC in support of the RSSF concept drew intense criticism from the public and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both criticized the plan because of the possibility that economic factors could later dictate using the facility as a permanent repository, contrary to the planned interim use of the RSSF. In this instance, it was unacceptable to proceed with an interim storage system unless there were unambiguous assurances that a permanent repository would be developed.

In 1975, Dr. Robert Seamans—in one of his first acts as administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA)—withdrew the EIS associated with the RSSF and decided that a permanent waste repository should be given budget priority. ERDA was created to assume the responsibilities of the then-dissolved AEC that were not covered by the newly formed NRC. [Read more →]

July 10, 2010   4 Comments

U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere [Part II: Project Salt Vault]

Part I in this series reviewed the history of nuclear waste storage policy in the United States. This post reviews Project Salt Vault, an early attempt to solve the dilemma of storing spent nuclear fuel.   Part III will cover the history of Yucca Mountain.

Project Salt Vault

The primary objective of Project Salt Vault was to demonstrate the safety and feasibility of handling and storing high level nuclear waste (HLW) solids from power reactors in salt formations. The engineering and scientific objectives were to:

· Demonstrate waste-handling equipment and techniques required to handle packages containing HLW solids from the point of production to the disposal location.

· Determine the stability of salt formations under the combined effects of heat and radiation (approximately 4,000,000 curies of radioactive material, yielding up to 109 rads).

· Collect information on creep and plastic flow of salt needed for the design of an actual disposal facility.

· Monitor the site for radiolytic chemical reactions, if such should occur.

The demonstration site selected was the inactive Lyons, Kansas mine of the Carey Salt Co. The 1,020-foot deep salt mine had operated from 1890 to 1948 and had been kept open for possible future use. Preparations for the demonstration began in 1963, and the first radioactive material was placed in the mine in November 1965. The tests involved the emplacement of actual irradiated fuel assemblies from the Engineering Test Reactor (ETR) in Idaho. The ETR assemblies were chosen because of their availability on a dependable schedule and their relatively high radioactivity levels. [Read more →]

July 9, 2010   9 Comments

U.S. Spent Nuclear Fuel Policy: Road to Nowhere [Part I: Historical Context]

In addition to building nuclear power plants, a robust nuclear energy infrastructure requires a means to store and recycle spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and other high level nuclear waste (HLW) products.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and Amendments of 1987 established a national policy and schedule for developing geologic repositories for the disposal of SNF and HLW. Those deadlines have come and gone; the cancellation of Yucca Mountain was only the latest failed attempt to make this policy a reality.

Nuclear fuel reprocessing traces its roots to work started in 1943 but the development work was suspended in the mid-1970s after several failed projects. The task of finding a new long-term storage location has now been assigned to yet another committee and SNF reprocessing remains in limbo in the U.S. while other nations are building modern reprocessing facilities.

Are developing a coherent nuclear fuel policy and following through on the plan impossible tasks?

In Part I of this series, we examine the historical context of the U.S. nuclear waste storage policy. In Parts II and III, we will look at the history of the ill-fated Salt Vault and Yucca Mountain projects.  Part IV will look at the legal and political fallout from the Yucca Mountain failure, and Part V will explore failed attempts to reprocess nuclear fuel in the U.S. and examine the global state-of-the-art reprocessing plants now operating or under construction.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) two-paragraph March 3 press release describing its motion to withdraw its pending license application for Yucca Mountain was an indecent obituary for the disposal site’s brief 23-year life and $8 billion cost. The relatively short history of nuclear power in the U.S. reminds us that the Yucca Mountain project may have been doomed from the start. A number of permanent nuclear waste storage site projects have been cancelled over the past 45 years, although Yucca Mountain was exponentially the most expensive failure. History also tells us that political considerations will always trump technology when it comes to siting a nuclear waste repository. [Read more →]

July 8, 2010   3 Comments