Nuclear Waste Storage

In “Deep Time: The End of an Engagement” (Issues, Spring 2021), Başak Saraç-Lesavre describes in succinct and painful detail the flawed US policy for managing nuclear waste. She weaves through a series of missteps, false starts, and dead-ends that have stymied steady progress and helped to engender our present state—which she describes as “deadlocked.”

Her description and critique are not meant to showcase political blunders, but to caution that the present stasis is, in effect, a potentially treacherous policy decision. The acceptance of essentially doing nothing and consigning the waste to a decentralized or centralized storage configuration is in fact a decision and a de facto policy. To make the situation worse, this status quo was not reached mindfully, but is the result of mangled planning, political reboots, and the present lack of a viable end-state option.

Although there may be some merit to accepting a truly interim phase of storing nuclear waste prior to an enduring disposal solution, the interim plan must be tied to a final solution. As decreed in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and reinforced by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, centralized interim storage was to be the bridge to somewhere. But the bridge is now looking like the destination, and it would be naive not to view it as another disincentive to an already anemic will to live up to the initial intent.

To make the situation worse, this status quo was not reached mindfully, but is the result of mangled planning, political reboots, and the present lack of a viable end-state option.

Saraç-Lesavre seems to believe this current impasse constitutes the end of an earlier era in which shaping decisions and outcomes was once driven by a “moral obligation to present and future generations.” She sees the current unfolding scenario as a reversal of a once-prevailing ethos.

I have been involved for the past 20-plus years in just about every sector dealing with nuclear waste disposal. Beginning with the formation of a nongovernmental organization opposed to incineration of waste, I have conducted work on stakeholder engagement with the Blue Ribbon Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Bipartisan Policy Commission, and the Department of Energy, as well as with a private utility, a private nuclear waste disposal company, and an emerging advanced reactor company. From these perspectives and my experience with them, my impression is that the issue of nuclear waste management is continually given consideration, but rarely commitment. Lip service is the native language and nearly everyone speaks it.

For US policymakers—and truly all stakeholders involved with nuclear waste—it will require a steely and coordinated commitment to solve the problem. This has always been the case, but now the problems are becoming more complex, the politics more partisan, and a path that once appeared negotiable is now nearly unnavigable. The reason for this is less about a lack of resolve to comprehend the “deep time” in which we need to consider the implications of nuclear waste, and more about the impediments and cheap workarounds wrought by the short cycles of “political time.”

Until we can take the politics out of nuclear waste disposal, it will not be the most sound decisions that prevail, but those with the prevailing wind in their sails.

Mary Woollen Consulting

Başak Saraç-Lesavre raises some fundamental and important issues. Spent nuclear fuel (SNF) was created over the past 40-plus years in return for massive amounts of clean nuclear-generated electricity. Are we going to begin to provide a collective answer for managing and disposing of SNF or are we going to shirk our clear moral responsibility and leave a punishing legacy to our children and future generations? More than 50 reactor sites across the United States continue to store SNF on site with no place to send it.

Saraç-Lesavre appears to support the recommendation of important but selective parties whose advice is that “spent nuclear fuel should be stored where it is used.” However, while championing consent-based siting, she does not include the views of those communities and states that now house this stranded SNF, nor the views of much of the science community that is working to provide a viable solution. When those nuclear power plants were originally sited, it was with the understanding that the federal government would take responsibility for removing SNF and disposing of it, allowing the sites to be decommissioned and returned to productive use. Siting and opening a repository for permanent disposal will take many decades even under the most optimistic scenarios; the nation needs to develop one or more interim storage sites that can be licensed, built, and opened for SNF acceptance decades earlier.

Saraç-Lesavre mentions the Obama administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future conclusion that siting a nuclear waste repository or interim storage facility should be consent-based. However, the commission made eight fundamental recommendations while also making it clear that it was not a matter of picking just one or several of them; rather, they were all required to resurrect an integrated US program and strategy that had the best chances for success. Two of the commission’s recommendations called for “prompt” actions to develop both a repository for the permanent disposal of SNF (and other high-level radioactive wastes) and centralized interim storage to consolidate SNF in the meantime. The reasoning was detailed and sound, and those recommendations remain highly relevant today.

A healthy, enduring federal repository program is needed and needed promptly. Whether through government, private industry, or a private/public partnership, consent-based centralized interim storage remains needed as well.

Former Lead Advisor, Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future

Başak Saraç-Lesavre’s commentary on the interim storage of commercially generated spent nuclear fuel raises a variety of important issues that have yet to be addressed. Here I would like to expand on some of her most salient points.

One of the consistent characteristics of the US strategy for the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle has been the absence of a systematic understanding of the issues and a failure to develop an encompassing strategy. In the report on a two-year study by an international team of nuclear waste management experts, Reset of America’s Nuclear Waste Management Strategy and Policies, sponsored by Stanford University and George Washington University, one of the most important findings was that the present US situation is the product of disconnected decisions that are not consistently aligned toward the final goal—permanent geologic disposal. The isolated decision to consolidate spent fuel inventories at just a few sites is another example of this same failed approach. Any decision to go forward with interim storage needs to be part of a broader series of decisions that will guarantee the final disposal of spent fuel in a geologic repository.

Another critical issue is the meaning of “interim” storage, as interim may well become permanent in the absence of a larger strategy. The present proposal is for interim storage for some 40 years, but it will almost certainly be longer if for no other reason than it will take the United States some 40 to 50 years to site, design, construct, and finally emplace spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste at a geologic repository. The siting of an interim storage facility and the transportation of waste to that facility will be a major undertaking that will take decades. One can hardly imagine that once the waste is moved, there will be an appetite for another campaign to move the waste again to a geologic repository, particularly as time passes, funding decreases, and administrations change. One must expect that as 34 states move their nuclear waste to just a few locations, such as to Texas and New Mexico, the national political will to solve the nuclear waste problem will evaporate. 

The siting of an interim storage facility and the transportation of waste to that facility will be a major undertaking that will take decades.

What is the alternative to interim storage? There is an obvious need is to secure the present sites by moving all the spent fuel into dry storage containers that should then situated below grade or in more secure berms. There may be good reason to move the casks from closed reactor sites to those that are still operating. As reactor sites shut down and are decommissioned, there may be value in retaining pools and waste handling facilities so that spent fuel casks can be opened, examined, and repackaged as needed. As my colleagues and I have reported, even this short list of requirements reveals that the selection between alternatives will be a difficult mix of technical issues that will have to be coordinated with the need to obtain consent for local communities, tribes, and states.

Interim storage, by itself, will not solve the United States’ nuclear waste problem. In this case, today’s solution is certain to become tomorrow’s problem.

Center for International Security and Cooperation

Stanford University

Başak Saraç-Lesavre’s article addresses the important topic of our moral obligations to future generations, but its focus only on nuclear waste is too narrow. The most important questions for our long-term obligations involve the long-term problems of all wastes generated by all energy technologies.

The focus on nuclear wastes is logical, in the same sense that it’s logical to look for lost keys under a streetlight. One of the major advantages of nuclear waste, compared with wastes that other energy technologies produce, is that it’s plausible to plan for and implement reasonable approaches to safely manage the waste for decades, centuries, and millennia into the future.

We need to shine a brighter light on the question of the very-long-term environmental and public health consequences of all the wastes produced by energy technologies, whether it be the rare-earth mill tailings in Baogang, China, thousands of coal-ash impoundments worldwide, fracking waste waters reinjected into wells, or most importantly, the thousands of gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane released from our current use of fossil fuels.

It sounds deeply dissatisfying, but our current de facto policy to use interim storage for spent nuclear fuel makes sense. Today’s lack of consensus about the permanent disposal of spent fuel is logical, because we do not now know whether it is actually waste, or is a valuable resource that should be recycled in the future to recover additional energy. We cannot predict this today, any more than in the 1970s one could predict whether shale oil could be a resource or should be left in its existing geologic isolation. Certainly with the shale technology of the 1970s, which involved mining, retorting, and generating large volumes of tailings, shale oil was not a resource. But technology has changed, and based upon statistics from the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency, the advent of shale fracking gets most of the credit for recent reductions in US carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation.

Regardless of whether existing spent fuel is recycled in the future, there will still be residuals that will require deep geologic disposal. The successful development of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the United States, for the deep geologic disposal of transuranic wastes from US defense programs, provides evidence that geologic disposal can be developed when societal consensus exists that materials really are wastes, and where clear benefits exist in placing these materials into permanent disposal. Today the United States needs to rethink its approach to managing nuclear wastes. Deep geologic disposal will be an essential tool, and development of multiple options, focused on disposal of materials that are unambiguously wastes, makes sense as the path forward.

William and Jean McCallum Floyd Endowed Chair

Department of Nuclear Engineering

University of California, Berkeley

He is also the Chief Nuclear Officer for Kairos Power, and is an early investor and advisor to the start-up company Deep Isolation

Başak Saraç-Lesavre provides an excellent account of the failed US government effort to implement a long-term solution to manage and dispose of the country’s growing backlog of spent nuclear fuel, and makes a compelling case that the prolonged absence of a national nuclear waste strategy has led to a lack of coordination and direction that could lead to inequitable and unjust outcomes. In particular, the development of consolidated interim storage facilities—if made economically attractive for nuclear plant owners—would likely undermine any political consensus for pursuing the challenging goal of siting and licensing a geologic repository.

For this reason and others, the Union of Concerned Scientists does not support consolidated interim storage facilities, and has consistently opposed legislation that would weaken current law by allowing the government to fund such facilities without closely coupling them to demonstrated progress in establishing a geologic repository. However, Saraç-Lesavre references our organization’s position in a way that could give the misleading impression that we support surface storage of spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites for an indefinite period. Although we strongly prefer on-site interim spent fuel storage to consolidated interim storage, provided it is stringently regulated and protected against natural disasters and terrorist attacks, maintaining a network of dispersed surface storage facilities forever is in no way an adequate substitute for a deep underground repository.

Maintaining a network of dispersed surface storage facilities forever is in no way an adequate substitute for a deep underground repository.

The challenge, of course, is how to revive the defunct repository siting program and execute it in a manner that addresses both environmental justice and intergenerational equity concerns. This is not straightforward. Locating a repository site in a region far from the reactors where spent fuel was generated and the areas where the electricity was consumed may seem unjust to the host community, but it could well be the best approach for minimizing long-term public health risks. In that case, one means of redress for the affected community would be fair compensation. The likely need to provide such compensation must be factored into the total cost of the repository program.

An alternative path is offered by the company Deep Isolation, which has proposed to bury spent fuel at or near reactor sites in moderately deep boreholes. While this concept raises significant technical and safety issues and would require major changes to current law and regulations, it does have the political advantage of obviating the need to find a centralized repository location. Whether it is a more just solution, however, is an open question.

Director of Nuclear Power Safety

Union of Concerned Scientists

Başak Saraç-Lesavre’s article on nuclear waste storage offers valuable insights, as do the other two articles on nuclear energy, but none addressed two glaring energy issues.

While not directly related to nuclear power, increasing renewable power will affect the electricity market. Sophisticated market mechanisms balance power output and distribution against demand to ensure fair electricity pricing. The temporal, seasonal, and weather-dependent variations in renewable production, along with the current inability to store large amounts of surplus energy, can upset that market. Backup resources, currently provided mostly by fossil-fuel generation, are critical to electricity marketplace stability.

Excess energy from renewables can force prices to plummet, discouraging investment and exacerbating price uncertainty. A lack of backup forced price spikes in Texas in February 2021 when the industry could not produce or obtain sufficient energy to meet needs driven by an unusual cold spell.

This ties into the three nuclear articles in that they did not acknowledge the advances in energy technology that could solve two issues: what to do with nuclear waste and how to back up renewables. There are at least 50 groups developing new concepts in nuclear fission and fusion energy. Few will survive, but those that do will affect storage of nuclear fuel policy, grid reliability, and uranium mining.

A nuclear power plant concept that one of us developed—the molten uranium thermal breeder reactor (MUTBR)—could reduce nuclear waste, provide backup to renewables, and reduce uranium mining.

There are at least 50 groups developing new concepts in nuclear fission and fusion energy. Few will survive, but those that do will affect storage of nuclear fuel policy, grid reliability, and uranium mining.

The MUTBR is mostly fueled by molten uranium and plutonium metals reduced from nuclear waste. They are its fuel and, as liquids, are pumped through a heat exchanger to give up their energy. It has large fuel tubes to facilitate uranium-238 fission and is a “breed-and-burn” reactor. In operation, it “breeds” enough plutonium from the plentiful isotope of uranium to fully replace the easily fissionable but scarce isotope of uranium (the primary fuel in conventional reactors) and plutonium that has fissioned (burned). The MUTBR may be a way to deal with used nuclear fuel while producing copious amounts of carbon-free power on demand.

The MUTBR could provide flexible backup power in the way hydroelectric dams can do to smooth out changes in production and demand. A dam’s reservoir storage capacity facilitates production management. MUTBR can facilitate backup in three ways.

First, it can send excess heat (beyond what is profitable to sell) to thermal reservoirs. Its high operating temperature would enable cheap heat reservoirs using molten sodium chloride salt. That energy can be released to the grid when demand and prices are higher. Second, if this salt heat storage is depleted but electricity demand is high, biofuels could be used to generate heat energy for its electric generators for backup. The generators would be sized to convert substantially more heat to electricity than the maximum available from its reactor. Third, when the thermal salt reservoirs are fully charged and power demand is low, MUTBR’s patented control mechanism provides flexibility to reduce its fission rate. This system would also improve safety by automatically throttling fission if there is a system failure.

These features of the MUTBR design could provide an excellent non-carbon-producing complement to renewable resources, filling in when renewable production is low and reducing output when renewables are near maximum output. These economic considerations are basic to having a reliable electric power industry.

Washington, DC

Washington, DC

Cite this Article

“Nuclear Waste Storage.” Issues in Science and Technology 37, no. 4 (Summer 2021).

Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Summer 2021