Tag Archives: nuclear waste disposal

Getting Rid of Nuclear Waste for Good: A Dream Coming True?

Gerard Mourou—one of the three winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics—claims that the lifespan of radioactive waste could potentially be cut to minutes from thousands of years. Although Mourou, 74, is quick to say that the laser option for nuclear waste that he and Irvine, California-based Professor Toshiki Tajima are working on may be years away, its promise has created a flurry of excitement for the sector in France.

 Environmental group Greenpeace estimates that there’s a global stockpile of about 250,000 tons of toxic spent fuel spread across 14 countries, based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Of that, 22,000 cubic meters—roughly equivalent to a three-meter tall building covering an area the size of a soccer pitch—is hazardous, according to the IAEA. A 2015 report by GE-Hitachi put the cost of disposing nuclear waste—outside of China, Russia and India—at well over $100 billion.  France produces more nuclear waste per-capita than any other country. With almost 72 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear energy—the most in the world—it generates 2 kilograms of radioactive waste per person each year. And although only a fraction of that is highly toxic, more than 60 years after getting into nuclear energy, the country still has no definitive way to cope with it.

In April 2019, France opened its third national debate on nuclear waste, bringing together policy makers, advocacy groups and scientists to discuss handling an estimated 10,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste collectively produced by the country’s 58 reactors over their lifespan. And that doesn’t include atomic material generated by the military and medical sectors.

The most toxic parts are stored right now in short-term facilities in La Hague in Normandy, in Marcoule and Cadarache in southern France and in Valduc, near Dijon. At the facility in La Hague, an hour’s drive from the D-Day beaches, specially designed robots cast the most radioactive nuclear waste into glass casings before putting them in inox containers. Already the world’s largest facility for processing atomic waste, it is constantly being expanded—making a long-term solution urgent.

State-controlled nuclear entities Electricite de France SA and Orano SA, charged with nuclear waste management, and CEA, France’s Atomic Energy Agency, have spent billions on the toxic material. At least another 25 billion euros ($28 billion) is set to be plowed into an underground maze of tunnels near the village of Bure in northeastern France that could be the final resting place for the highly toxic waste starting in 2025.  Like with other deep storage sites in place, under construction or being considered in countries including the U.S., Japan, Finland and Sweden, the Bure plan has drawn protests. Greenpeace has pointed to several risks, not least of which being the chance of the toxic material seeping into the groundwater or a fire releasing radioactive gases.

Enter Mourou, with his high-intensity laser option. The physicist’s work has paved the way for the shortest and most-intense laser pulses ever created. In his Nobel Lecture on Dec. 8, Mourou laid out his vision for using his “passion for extreme light” to address the nuclear-waste problem.  The process he and Tajima are working on is called transmutation, which involves changing the composition of an atom’s nucleus by bombarding it with a laser. “It’s like karate—you deliver a very strong force in a very, very brief moment,” said Mourou…Transmutation research has been going on for three decades, with efforts in the U.K., Germany, Belgium, U.S. and Japan either failing or in various stages of study…“I can imagine that the physics might work, but the transmutation of high-level nuclear waste requires a number of challenging steps, such as the separation of individual radionuclides, the fabrication of targets on a large scale, and finally, their irradiation and disposal,” said Rodney C. Ewing, a professor in nuclear security and geological sciences at Stanford University. A radionuclide is an atom that has excess nuclear energy, making it unstable.

Excerpts from Zapping Nuclear Waste in Minutes Is Nobel Winner’s Holy Grail Quest, Bloomberg, Apr. 2, 2019

Why Texas Loves Nuclear Waste

A proposal to take in more out-of-state waste at a West Texas radioactive waste disposal site has encountered an unlikely argument against it: that it can harm the booming oil and gas industry.  Waste Control Specialists is asking state lawmakers for permission to take in more low-level radioactive waste — such as rags, syringes and protective clothing from nuclear plants or hospitals — from outside of Texas for disposal at its Andrews County facility near the Texas-New Mexico border.

Environmental groups have long opposed radioactive waste at the site, which they say could jeopardize groundwater.  Environmentalists at the hearing were joined by Tommy Taylor, director of oil and gas development for Fasken Oil and Ranch, which operates in Andrews County.  Quoting from a handbook of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Taylor said radioactive waste dumps should be sited away from “land with exportable minerals and energy resources.”  “Don’t put it in an oilfield,” he said. “The oil and gas resources of the Permian Basin are too important for the security of the state of Texas and the United States to put it at risk with storing spent fuel rod casks in this region.”

Spent fuel is not designated as low-level waste, but he said he worried that designation could change.  It’s unusual for a representative of an oil and gas company to publicly criticize at the Capitol another segment of the energy industry…

But If Waste Control Specialists becomes insolvent the state might have to take control of the facility.  The legislation poposed by Texas lawmakers lifts the cap on the amount of out-of-state, low-level waste the company can accept at the 8.9 million cubic feet-capacity site from 30 percent to 60 percent.  The company currently pays six Austin lobbyists as much as $240,000 to persuade lawmakers of the wisdom of its plans….Waste Control Specialists’ partnership with Orano USA, called Interim Storage Partners LLC, has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to accept used nuclear fuel — high-level waste — at the Andrews facility.  Waste Control Specialists, which already disposes of other kinds of radioactive waste at its site in Andrews County, has been trying to position itself as a short-term alternative to Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site long ago selected by the federal government for storage of radioactive waste. Yucca had been bedeviled by decades of political quarrels, even as radioactive waste has piled up at the country’s nuclear power plants.

Excerpt from Asher Price, Radioactive waste site seeks more out-of-state material, Statesman, Mar. 30, 2019

Scattered Nuclear Waste: 88 000MT, 33 States, 75 Plants

The broad coalition of labor unions, state public service commissioners, clean energy organizations, and energy trade associations told U.S. House and Senate leaders in a December 4, 2018 letter: “It is time for the federal government to meet its statutory and contractual obligations. Utilities and their electricity customers have done their part.”

The letter notes that the Nuclear Waste Fund—a U.S. Treasury account collected via a fee charged to electric ratepayers over 30 years—today holds a balance of more than $40 billion. The fund is mostly unused, owing to paralysis of the Yucca Mountain project, and it continues to accumulate interest of about $1.7 billion a year from investments in Treasury securities.

About $7.4 billion in damages have now also been paid out from the Treasury’s Judgment Fund to utilities, which have filed lawsuits against the Department of Energy (DOE) since 2000, seeking compensation for defaulting on a standard contract and missing the deadline to begin disposing of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. To date, 40 suits have been settled and an additional 57 cases have been resolved, a November 2018 special report from the DOE’s Office of Inspector General noted.

The coalition includes major industry trade groups the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and the Edison Electric Institute—along with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which is a group of state regulators….According to the NEI, the inventory of used fuel in temporary storage at 75 reactor sites scattered across 33 states has now grown to more than 80,000 metric tons.

Exceprts from Sonal Patel, Industry Groups to Congress: Inaction on Nuclear Waste Not an Option, Power Magazine,  Dec. 6, 2018

Nuclear Priesthood: the future of nuclear waste

As  the world increasingly buries its nuclear waste, a growing number of experts are trying to come up with a way to warn future generations of what, exactly, will be lying under their feet.    Deciding where to create nuclear waste storage sites, demarcating them clearly and then writing it all down seems like the obvious solution. After all, mankind started writing down its history 5,500 years ago and the likelihood of us stopping to do so seems slim.   But the question then becomes: what should we write this crucial piece of information on?  Stone and paper deteriorate. USB sticks and servers do, too.  Some government entities, like ANDRA, the French National Agency in charge of managing radioactive waste, have started to record their archive on permanent paper.  Also known as acid-free paper due to its composition, it can remain chemically and physically stable for a long period of time — unlike traditional paper, which starts to yellow and decay over time when exposed to light or heat.

The agency has also built sapphire discs, made out of sapphire and etched with platinum on one side. These can contain up to 40,000 pages of pictures and text and could, theoretically, last for some two million years.   Language, after all, is a living, changing entity. That’s why it took us decades to decode Egyptian hieroglyphs and why you might have gotten a headache reading Shakespeare’s Old English masterpieces in class. So who’s to say that French scientists 1,000 years from now will be able to understand la langue de Moliere’s current form?  The OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has since created a working group whose task it is to set the best practices on Radioactive Waste Repository Metadata Management so that all the information is not only stored properly but is also easily accessible as national nuclear waste programmes evolve…

In a report, the researchers led by Thomas Sebeok of the University of Indiana recommended the creation of a nuclear priesthood, inspired by the Catholic Church, which would relay information down the generations through “a mixture of iconic, indexical and symbolic elements” and “a high degree of redundancy of messages.”..

The problem with art, explained Peter Galison, professor of the History of Science and of Physics at Harvard University and author of the Containment documentary, is that if a message is too artistic, then it might not be properly understood as different people may have different interpretations of it….For instance, you know for sure what the skull pictogram means. If you’re thinking death, you’re right. Yet this symbol, Blanquer said, “comes from alchemists.”  “The skull represents Adam and the crossing bones the promise of resurrection,” he revealed. So in the span of just a few centuries this particular pictogram has evolved from meaning resurrection to meaning death.

As waste can be buried either near or deep under the surface, the signal should be seen both above but also under the ground. The researchers employed by the US Department of Energy in the mid-1980s (who came up with the nuclear priesthood, remember!), had also envisioned different monuments to get the point across: fields of pikes, threatening statues of thunderbolts, or enormous blocs of granite positioned into a tight grid….
The Finnish project of Onkalo took the problem completely differently: what if we came up with a way that would allow us to simply not tell future generations?  Its solution? Digging a deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel.  “The entire concept of Posiva (the company which manages the project), is that 100 to 120 years after it’s been closed, the site will not be signalled. The 500 meters to the storage site in the geological layer will be filled with rock and the entire thing will be isolated and invisible in the natural landscape.”

Excerpts from What will a nuclear waste warning look like in 100,000 years’ time?, Euronews, Nov. 16, 2018

Nuclear Waste Above Sea Level: Pilgrim

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (PNPS) is the only nuclear power plant operating in Massachusetts. …On October 13, 2015, plant owners announced that it would close by June 1, 2019, citing “market conditions and increased costs,” which would have included tens of millions of dollars of necessary safety upgrades.

Up to 2015,all of the nuclear reactor fuel rods from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station were submerged in a deep pool of water, which was running out of space.  In 2015, the company started to use casks to store the waste. Cask storage is used at many nuclear plants in the United States to deal with excess nuclear reactor waste. The casks, 18 feet tall and 11 feet wide, are designed to withstand a truck bomb or a tornado-borne projectile moving at 360 miles per hour.

The plant in 2018 had 17 steel-reinforced concrete cylinders filled with the radioactive waste on a concrete pad about 25 feet above sea level and about 200 feet from shore.  It announced it was planning to move these 360,000-pound casks to a new pad on an existing parking lot that’s about 75 feet above mean sea level and 700 feet from shore to avoid risks associated with sea-level rise due to climate change.

Costs of Demolishing Nuclear Reactors

/The International Energy Agency (IEA) said late in 2014  (pdf) that almost 200 of the 434 reactors in operation around the globe would be retired by 2040, and estimated the cost of decommissioning them at more than $100 billion.  But many experts view this figure as way too low, because it does not include the cost of nuclear waste disposal and long-term storage and because decommissioning costs – often a decade or more away – vary hugely per reactor and by country…. The IEA’s head of power generation analysis, Marco Baroni, said that even excluding waste disposal costs, the $100 billion estimate was indicative, and that the final cost could be as much as twice as high. He added that decommissioning costs per reactor can vary by a factor of four.Decommissioning costs vary according to reactor type and size, location, the proximity and availability of disposal facilities, the intended future use of the site, and the condition of the reactor at the time of decommissioning….

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that the cost of decommissioning in the United States – which has some 100 reactors – ranges from $300 million to $400 million per reactor, but some reactors might cost much more.  France’s top public auditor and the nuclear safety authority estimate the country’s decommissioning costs at between 28 billion and 32 billion euros ($32-37 billion).  German utilities – such as E.ON, which last month said it would split in two, spinning off power plants to focus on renewable energy and power grids – have put aside 36 billion euros. .  Britain’s bill for decommissioning and waste disposal is now estimated at 110 billion pounds ($167 billion) over the next 100 years, double the 50 billion pound estimate made 10 years ago.  Japanese government estimates put the decommissioning cost of the country’s 48 reactors at around $30 billion, but this is seen as conservative. Russia has 33 reactors and costs are seen ranging from $500 million to $1 billion per reactor.

Excerpt, Global nuclear decommissioning cost seen underestimated, may spiral, Reuters, Jan, 19, 2015

Texas Accepts Vermont Nuclear Waste

The chairman of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission says the organization is going to honor a 20-year-old agreement that guarantees space for radioactive waste from Vermont in its Texas disposal facility, a deal that Gov. Peter Shumlin said is critical now that Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is shutting down.  During a Wednesday meeting (October 3, 2012) at the Vermont Statehouse, Commission Chairman Robert Wilson said the commission recognizes Vermont is a partner in the compact.  “This compact is going to be more important than ever,” Gov. Peter Shumlin told the commission. “My concern is we remember Vermont and Texas were there first.”

In 1993 Vermont and Texas formed the compact. Under the agreement, Texas would host a low-level radioactive waste facility and Vermont would have a place to send some of the waste from its nuclear power plant. Most of the materials after the plant is decommissioned would go to the Texas facility, except for the fuel rods and higher radioactive materials, said Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia.  Vermont officials are looking for assurance there will be space in Texas for the low-level radioactive waste from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, which is due to be shut down next year.

Texas commission will honor radioactive waste deal with Vt. ahead of nuke plant shutdown, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, Oct. 3, 2013