Flipping the Script on Nuclear Waste: Why We Need Nuclear Energy Innovation

by Alan Ahn 

Spent nuclear fuel, although commonly considered “waste,” contains untapped energy that can be accessed through advanced technologies that are rapidly coming to the fore. These innovations can thus revolutionize how we view nuclear waste, thereby addressing the political issues that have hindered how we manage it.

THE WASTE “ISSUE”

Even as innovators are now developing new designs, concepts, and applications that could fundamentally change nuclear technology in the very near future, perceptions of nuclear energy continue to be shadowed by the past.

Arguments against nuclear power range from concerns about safety to construction and operating costs. Of these, arguably the most frequently recurring objection is nuclear waste.

Although often called “waste,” spent nuclear fuel coming from conventional nuclear plants actually contains significant energy potential, much of which is inaccessible through traditional light-water reactor technologies. However, the energy contained within spent fuel can be unleashed through recycling the material and using it in advanced fast-neutron reactors. Not only can fast reactors extract more energy from uranium resources, they can also reduce the volume, heat, and radiotoxicity of products for final disposal.

 

THE POLITICS OF WASTE

With the suspension of Yucca Mountain, our stockpile of commercial spent fuel remains scattered at power plants throughout the country, much of it stored in dry casks–essentially, hardened steel and concrete canisters that contain radioactivity. To be sure, it would be preferable to have a consensus national policy, backed by local support, through which this material can be consolidated–whether permanently in a geological repository or temporarily in interim storage sites. However, the current practice of storing spent fuel in dry casks has been quite robust and secure in protecting the public from radiation exposure.

The effectiveness of these casks has ironically lessened the urgency to address the impasse over Yucca Mountain and find a long-term solution, highlighting that nuclear waste is more of a political issue than a technical one. For example, other countries (such as Finland) have made significant strides towards the siting and construction of underground disposal facilities. According to nuclear waste experts, the success of the Finnish repository program “is due in part to how it was presented to the people who would be most affected by it. Each community under consideration as a repository location was consulted and promised veto power should it be selected.”

In contrast, the process of siting Yucca Mountain did not proceed with full buy-in from the State of Nevada and other stakeholders, resulting in the morass we find ourselves in today.

 

THE INNOVATION IMPERATIVE

To encourage progress on managing nuclear waste, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is now pursuing an alternative path forward on spent fuel that circumvents Yucca Mountain–a consent-based approach following the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC), which was convened during the Obama administration and cited both historical and international case studies.

Boiled down, a consent-based strategy seeks volunteer hosts for waste management facilities. One potential selling point for host communities may be closely linked to advanced nuclear technologies that are now nearing reality.

The 2012 BRC report stated that no foreseeable reactor or recycling technologies would be available “to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge…” However, in recent years, there have been rapid advancements in fast-neutron reactor technologies capable of using waste as fuel. There are presently a number of developers close to demonstrating and deploying these so-called fast reactors, including TerraPower and Oklo.

Furthermore, spent fuel recycling is emerging as a focus for federally-sponsored R&D initiatives. In May, DOE announced a new program at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) called “Optimizing Nuclear Waste and Advanced Reactor Disposal Systems” (ONWARDS) that would seek to improve the efficiency and security of recycling technologies, with a focus on advanced reactor fuel cycles.

Ultimately, opening a pathway to accessing the latent value of spent fuel could make hosting “waste” disposal or storage facilities more attractive for potential host communities, thereby facilitating consent-based siting. Even if industrial-scale recycling is not realized in the short-term, communities could still derive economic and jobs benefits from the siting of R&D facilities, advanced reactor pilots and demonstrations, etc. In the end, these benefits can more than just facilitate consent, but also make it more durable.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Advanced reactors not only hold promise to be superior on waste, but are also safer, more economical, and more secure. Yet, nuclear continues to fly under the radar in conversations about climate change and clean energy, partly because of a lack of awareness of emerging innovations that should alter our core conceptions of this energy source.

It is important to note that these advanced nuclear technologies are no longer theoretical, far-off ideas. Technological progress should force us to continually reevaluate our beliefs and presumptions, and thus, we must not remain shackled to outdated notions about nuclear energy at a time when the hard work of developers and innovators are now at the cusp of bearing fruit.

 

Alan Ahn is the Senior Resident Fellow for Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program

 

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