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Slow death of nuclear power, leaving stranded radioactive trash

Radioactive waste stranded as U.S. shifts from nuclear energy, Lack of a long-term repository leaves communities as de facto storage sites, Chemical and Engineering News, by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN, AUGUST 28, 2018 

The U.S. appears to be witnessing the slow death of nuclear power. Plants are aging out and retiring, and their place in the electricity marketplace is being captured by cheaper, simpler, and less controversial sources—particularly natural gas plants and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

But even as reactors shut down and communities eye former nuclear sites for redevelopment, a big problem remains: Despite more than 50 years of laws, regulations, lawsuits, and debates, the U.S. has no long-term repository for nuclear waste—nor even much of a plan for one.

A decade ago, more than 120 reactors generated electricity in the U.S., and the nuclear power industry and federal regulators were heralding a nuclear power renaissance. Today, however, operating reactors have dropped to 98. Twelve more reactors have committed to shutting down by 2024, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which regulates nuclear power generators.

The rest of the current reactors will also likely close over the next two decades as they reach their expected lifetimes. Two power plants remain under some level of construction, half of the number planned a year ago.

As reactors shut down, radioactive spent fuel from decades of electricity production remains in pools and casks on the plant sites, much to the chagrin of nearby residents and civic leaders. They want the waste gone and the land put to productive use.

Al Hill is the mayor of Zion, Ill., a 25,000-resident community on the shore of Lake Michigan, 45 miles north of Chicago. In 1973, two reactors at Zion Nuclear Power Station began generating power for the region and operated until 1998. Since then, the plant has been successfully decommissioned, and by the end of this year, most concrete structures and the reactor cores will be hauled to low-level radioactive disposal sites, Hill says. However, 64 5-meter-tall, 150-metric-ton waste canisters will remain, lined up like giant bowling pins on a concrete slab 90 m from the lakeshore……….

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, a U.S. geologic repository was to be operating by 1998. That act called for the creation of two waste repositories, one each in the eastern and western parts of the U.S. It also laid out a process to examine and select potential waste sites from several candidates. In 1987, however, Congress amended the law, modifying it in such a way that only Yucca Mountain in Nevada could qualify as a geological waste repository. The law was nicknamed the “screw Nevada bill.”

The state has opposed hosting a radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain from the start, notes geologist Allison Macfarlane, who served as NRC head from 2012–14 and before that was a member of a special blue-ribbon committee that examined the site-selection process. Some geologists, Native American tribes, and environmental organizations have also opposed a Yucca Mountain repository. Nevertheless, geologic site studies, pilot plant construction, and policy planning slowly advanced.

But while campaigning for president in Nevada in 2008, Barack Obama promised to cancel the site. When elected, he followed through and killed Yucca, then created the 15-member commission that included Macfarlane. The commission did not reconsider the geological suitability of Yucca Mountain as a waste repository. Rather, it spent two years examining the site selection process. It ultimately recommended a total overhaul of the site assessment and selection process, including having the process led by a “single-purpose federal corporation” instead of the Department of Energy. The commission also recommended a “consent-based” process with incentives offered to encourage communities and states to accept the waste.

Commission members pointedly said the Yucca Mountain approach had been a “top-down, federally mandated solution” that was forced onto a community and eventually would fail. …….

“I don’t get the sense that nuclear waste is a high priority for the Trump administration,” former NRC head Macfarlane says. “There is no real group to put pressure to resolve the waste issue, except the people living near the shutdown sites. The nuclear industry is struggling right now, and they aren’t likely to pour money into this, and Congress appears willing to let it be.” Macfarlane still supports a consent-based approach for repository selection and would not comment on the suitability of Yucca Mountain as a repository

Meanwhile, NRC spokesperson McIntyre notes that two companies, Holtec International and Interim Storage Partners, are pursuing consolidated interim storage facilities and have applied for NRC licenses. The two sites are near one another in the southwest on both sides of the border between Texas and New Mexico.

Operations would be years away, McIntyre adds, and would require a complex—and also controversial—transportation plan to move the huge casks of radioactive material through much of the U.S.

Also, NRC is nearly ready to publicly release a proposed regulation to speed the decommissioning process. The regulation is needed, McIntyre says, because decommissioning is likely to become much more common and does not hold the same risks as an operating plant. Communities are watching closely for changes that might threaten safety, Hill says.

The regulation will have far-reaching impact, McIntyre notes, since the decommissioning process can legally take up to 60 years and will affect some 80 communities. But spent fuel removal will remain on hold, stored in casks or pools, until transportation and long-term repository issues are addressed. https://cen.acs.org/energy/nuclear-power/Radioactive-waste-stranded-US-shifts/96/web/2018/08

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August 29, 2018 - Posted by | USA, wastes

1 Comment »

  1. There is no way to store nuclear waste safely. Uranium mine waste can be diluted and reburied. Medical isotopes, any purified radionuclide, reactor waste, enriched uranium, plutonium all contain hi level radionuclides. They generate heat, from their radioactive nature. Many are highly chemically reactive too. They also emit beta, gamma and neutrons that will chenge/degrade the walls of the material they are encased in. They can generate gases. They can catalyze exothermic reactions. The nuclearists, have gone out of their way, to keep these things a secret for years.

    Comment by Ken | August 29, 2018 | Reply


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