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Nuclear Waste Is Piling Up. Does the U.S. Have a Plan?

The present U.S. policy of indefinite storage at a centralized site is not a viable solution, as it shifts the cost and risk to future generations.

We need a permanent national nuclear waste disposal site now, before the spent nuclear fuel stored in 35 states becomes unsafe

Scientific American By Allison MacfarlaneRodney C. Ewing  March 6, 2023

As small modular nuclear reactors come closer to reality in the U.S., managing and disposing of their highly radioactive waste should be a national priority. Forty years after the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, there is, “no clear path forward for the siting, licensing, and construction of a geologic repository” for nuclear waste, according to a recent U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report.

The good news is that there is already a clear strategy for managing and disposing of this highly radioactive material. The bad news is that the U.S. government has yet to seriously follow that plan.

The National Academies report tells us that new or advanced reactor designs—the hoped-for saviors of the nuclear industry—will not save us from the need to build geologic repositories, deep-mined facilities for permanent nuclear waste disposal. In some cases, these new reactors may make it worse by creating more waste that’s more costly to manage, new kinds of complex waste, or just more waste, period. Before we face that onrush, we first need to deal with the large volume of waste we’ve already produced.

The U.S., which led the way on managing nuclear waste in the 1980s and 1990s, has now fallen to the back of the pack. About 88,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors remain stranded at reactor sites, and this number is increasing by some 2,000 metric tons each year. These 77 sites are in 35 states and threaten to become de facto permanent disposal facilities. Without a geologic repository, there is no way forward for the final disposal of this highly radioactive material. Storing it in pools and dry casks at reactor sites is a temporary solution; it is safe for decades, but not the millennia needed to isolate this radioactive material from the environment. The present U.S. policy of indefinite storage at a centralized site is not a viable solution, as it shifts the cost and risk to future generations.

Beginning now, the nation needs to follow a pathway already set out for a national nuclear waste repository. Both a 2012 presidential Blue Ribbon Commission and an international expert panel organized by Stanford and George Washington Universities in 2018 recommended a new, independent, waste management and disposal organization with funding outside of the annual Congressional appropriations and restrictive budgetary rules. The Blue Ribbon Commission called for creation of a new federal corporation, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, for this organization, while the Stanford/GWU panel looked to replicate not-for-profit, utility-owned, but independent, organizations modeled on successful programs in other countries, such as Sweden and Finland.

Charges to nuclear-power-produced electricity fund these organizations, and they remain regulated by independent nuclear regulators. Both panels agreed on the need for an independent organization and finances………………………………………………………………

Assured finances are also key. In the U.S., Congress hasn’t appropriated funds for its Yucca Mountain nuclear waste program since 2010. In fact, Congress has so badly mangled the process of collecting and appropriating the ratepayers fundnow over $40 billion, that it has rendered these funds essentially inaccessible. Outrageously, this money, actually collected from electricity ratepayers, not taxpayers, is being used to offset the national debt.

Even if the U.S. starts today, it will take decades to site, design and build a facility for disposal of its nuclear waste stockpile. That process must accelerate now, before the reactors we need for their electricity run out of room for their growing inventories of highly radioactive waste.


March 7, 2023 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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