Tag Archives: permanent 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

Nuclear Waste-Idaho National Laboratory

 

The U.S. Energy Department has canceled  in October 2015 a plan to ship to the Idaho National Laboratory spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors out of state, a controversial proposal that drew protests from two former governors and a lawsuit from one of them. Incumbent Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and state Attorney General Lawrence Wasden in January 2015 expressed conditional support for two proposed deliveries of the high-level radioactive waste, saying it would raise the lab’s profile and boost the local economy around Idaho Falls, where the facility is located.

But talks between the Department of Energy (DOE) and Idaho broke down amid mounting opposition to the plan by two of Idaho’s former governors, one of whom filed a lawsuit last month seeking information he said the federal agency was concealing about the proposal.

Cecil Andrus, a Democrat who served four terms as governor, said at the time that he suspected DOE’s intent was to turn the sprawling research facility along the Snake River into a de facto nuclear dump in the absence of a permanent repository for high-level radioactive waste elsewhere in the United States.  Earlier this year, Andrus and former Governor Phil Batt, a Republican, accused DOE of violating a 1995 agreement that banned such shipments to Idaho.Specifically, they said the Energy Department had not yet complied with a provision of the accord requiring removal of nuclear waste already stored at the lab to reduce impacts on an aquifer that supplies drinking water to tens of thousands of Idaho residents.

In a statement sent Friday to Idaho National Lab workers, the director, Mark Peters, said he had been informed that the state and DOE “were unable to reach an understanding that would have enabled the first of two recently discussed shipments of research quantities of spent nuclear fuel to come to INL.” [see also 2011 Memorandum of Agreement on Storage of Research Quantities of Commercial Spent Fuel at the Idaho National Laboratory]  Peters said in his statement that the spent nuclear fuel in question would be delivered instead to “another DOE facility,” though it was not made clear where the materials were now destined.

Energy Department cancels plan to ship nuclear waste to Idaho, Reuters, Oct. 23, 2015

Nuclear Waste Disposal: Japan

The Japanese government will select potential areas to host nuclear dump sites instead of waiting for communities to volunteer, according to the revised policy on permanent disposal of high-level radioactive waste that was adopted by the Cabinet on May 22, 2015  The revision, the first in seven years, was prompted after towns, villages and cities throughout Japan snubbed requests to host nuclear waste dumps. The government has been soliciting offers since 2002.

The move is seen as a sign that the government wants to address the matter as it proceeds with its pursuit of reactor restarts. All commercial units have largely sat idle since the triple meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 plant in 2011….Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is seeking to revive atomic power, although the majority of the public remains opposed in light of the Fukushima disaster, which left tens of thousands homeless. Critics have attacked the government for promoting atomic power without resolving where all the waste will end up.

Permanent disposal of high-level nuclear waste requires that a depository be built more than 300 meters underground, where the materials must lie for up to 100,000 years until radiation levels fall to the point where there is no harm to humans or the environment.  About 17,000 tons of spent fuel is stored on the premises of nuclear plants and elsewhere in Japan, but some would run out of space in three years if all the reactors got back online.  Under the revision, the government said it will allow future generations to retrieve high-level waste from such facilities should policy changes or new technologies emerge.

Worldwide, only Finland and Sweden have been able to pick final depository sites.

Excerpts from METI changes tactics after search for nuclear waste host proves futile,  Japan Times, May 22, 2015

Mismanaging Nuclear Waste – Germany

Inspectors in northern Germany have found that a third of barrels containing radioactive waste at a decommissioned nuclear plant are damaged, the Schleswig-Holstein Environment Ministry said on Thursday.  Vattenfall, the energy company which manages the Brunsbüttel site in Schlewswig-Holstein, reported that 102 of the 335 barrels stored in the site’s six underground chambers were corroded, leaking or had loose lids.  Some of the containers are so deformed that they can no longer be moved, as they no longer fit into the robotic gripping arms installed at the site, the inspectors reported.  “The chambers are secure and there is no danger for the personnel or the local population,” Vattenfall said in a statement released on Thursday,

The Brunsbüttel site harbours 631 barrels of nuclear waste in its six chambers, which have been used for storing waste since 1979. The nuclear power plant was decommissioned in 2011.  The barrels contain resin used for water filters, residue from contaminated water and various other types of waste.

So far, Vattenfall has only inspected four of the six chambers using remote cameras.  The chambers themselves are built from concrete and have walls over a metre thick to prevent radiation escaping into the surrounding environment.  The energy company has sent a proposal to the Schlewsig-Holstein Environment Ministry for making the storage facility more secure, including by installing dehumidifiers to slow corrosion, which has yet to be approved by government experts.  “The chambers [at Brunsbüttel] were supposed to be a temporary storage facility,” Vattenfall said in a statement on Thursday. “They weren’t designed to for long-term containment.”

It was originally planned to store the barrels at Brunsbüttel until they were moved to the ‘Konrad’ mine shaft site in Lower Saxony.This permanent storage facility was to be completed by the mid- to late 90s, but has been subject to successive delays. Completion dates in 2014 has been missed and a target of 2019 is also unlikely.  The latest estimate for completion is the start of the next decade.

One in three nuclear waste barrels damaged, The Local Germany, Oct. 10, 2014

Haunted by Sellafield, nuclear waste storage in the UK

The government’s long-term hopes of burying nuclear waste in the UK has suffered a major blow after Cumbria county council voted against plans for a £12bn underground site.  Three local authorities – Cumbria county council, Allerdale borough council and Copeland borough council – were set to vote on the search for a site, which would have been the first of its kind in the UK.

Copeland borough councillors voted six-to-one in favour of moving to onto the next stage of the search process. But Cumbria county council took an opposing view, rejecting the proposals by seven votes to three, and in the process ending the county council’s four-year formal involvement in the consultation process.  “As a decision to continue with the process needed the agreement of both the district and county councils, Cumbria county council’s decision has removed both districts from consideration,” councillors said in a statement. The vote triggered huge cheers from environmental campaigners outside the council chamber in Carlisle.

Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, said the decision was “disappointing”….

More than 32,000 people had signed a petition against the £12bn underground storage facility.However, the issue of how to handle nuclear waste remains live in Cumbria.  Sellafield’s nuclear storage facilities remain the largest in the UK, and the ten members of the county council’s cabinet also agreed that the council will encourage the Government to invest in improvements to the existing surface storage facilities at the site while a permanent solution for the country’s higher activity radioactive waste is found.

Campaigners {West Cumbria Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace) argued the underground dump would harm the Lake District national park and its tourism industry. They also claim that studies show Cumbria’s geology is unlikely to be safe for radioactive waste.

Excerpts, Cumbria rejects radioactive waste disposal programme, http://www.channel4.com/news/, Jan. 30, 2012

Canada and its Nuclear Waste

Since the 1960s,  Canada’s nuclear power plants have generated more than two million bundles of highly radioactive used fuel. And they’re all still stored on the sites of the plants that produced them.But the pace of finding a site to store Canada’s most potent radioactive waste permanently is about to pick up.  Twenty Canadian communities have said they’ll consider volunteering to host the storage site.  That list is about to close. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, whose job it is to find and build the site, will stop taking new names on Sept. 30, 2012.  The impending cut-off is ratcheting up the pressure on the technocrats charged with selecting a site; on the boosters who want to snare the multi-billion-dollar repository for their community; on the activists who harbour deep suspicions about safety; and on the aboriginal leaders who say they’ve been cut out of the process….

A fuel bundle for a Candu nuclear power reactor is about the size of a fireplace log. As of June 30, 2011, Canada had 2,273,873 used fuel bundles stored at its nuclear plants in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.  Another 85,000 or so have been added since then.  In total, they’d fill about six NHL hockey rinks, stacked up as high as the boards.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, formed by the three electric utilities that run nuclear reactors, wants to bury the waste deep underground in caverns excavated from stable rock, where it can lie undisturbed forever.  The depth will probably depend on the site’s geology. A facility proposed to hold less-potent radioactive waste at the Bruce nuclear site near Kincardine will be 680 metres deep. By comparison, the CN Tower is 553 metres tall.  The NWMO is looking for a “willing” community to agree to take the $16-to-$24-billion project. The host community itself will decide how to define “willing.” Candidate communities will have multiple opportunities to withdraw if they get cold feet, the NWMO says.  As it moves through a nine-stage selection process, the NWMO hopes to have narrowed the field to one or two communities by 2015, then spend until about 2020 deciding on a specific site within the chosen community.  After that, it will take three to five years to do an extensive environmental assessment of the site. The proponents will also have to satisfy the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission that their plan makes sense, and obtain a license to construct and operate the facility.  Then, it will take six to 10 years to build. The NWMO doesn’t expect the first bundles to be stored until 2035.  The plan is to seal the waste in sturdy, radiation-proof containers and store it deep in a stable rock formation where — even if the containers were to crack and leak — there’s be no danger of contaminating groundwater used by humans. (Although that’s the current strategy, the NWMO says it would consider a different plan if compelling evidence emerged that another technique is superior.)

Current designs call for surface buildings and facilities to cover about 100 hectares (250 acres), says the NWMO’s Michael Krizanc.  “As well, there may be a need to limit activities in the immediate area surrounding the surface facilities in order to meet regulatory or other requirements.”  Underground, the excavated caverns will cover an area of about 2.5 kilometres by 1.5 kilometres. That’s 375 hectares, or 930 acres.  “The NWMO would need to have rights to the land above the repository,” says Krizanc, but “alternative uses could be considered, with the community, for portions of the land.”….

Meanwhile in Saugeen Shores, a lively battle is under way as members of a citizens group dubbed save Save Our Saugeen Shores, or SOS, fights what they see as an attempt to impose the waste site on their community on the shore of the Great Lakes….SOS also worries that U.S. power plants might be able to force Canada to take U.S. nuclear waste in a Canadian waste site, through terms of the free trade agreement between the countries…..Up in Elliot Lake, contractors Stephen Martin and Marc Brunet can’t wait for the project to start….Elliot Lake has been identified with uranium since its founding, he shrugs: “We’re the uranium capital of the world…. This thing will be a tourist attraction. I think it’s the best thing that could happen.”

John Spears, Nuclear waste seeks a home, Toronto Star, Sept. 1, 2012