Why Store It At All?: Fukushima shines light on U.S. problem: 63,000 tons of spent fuel | CNN.com


The U.S. problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel has been highlighted by the problems that the Japanese are experiencing at the Fukushima plant as pointed out in this CNN article. The problem is that the spent fuel is stored in… well, I’ll let one scientist put it out there for you:

David Lochbaum, a nuclear physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists…:

“At many sites there is nearly 10 times as much irradiated fuel in spent fuel pools as in the reactor core,” he said. “The spent fuel pools are not housed in robust concrete containment structures designed to protect the public from the radioactivity they contain. Instead the pools are often housed in buildings with sheet metal siding like that in a Sears storage shed,” Lochbaum said.

“I have nothing against the quality of Sears storage sheds but they are not suitable to nuclear waste storage,” he said.

Not suitable, indeed.

However, the bigger question is, why are we bothering to store it in the first place? Why are we (1) storing the stuff in places it’s not safe like a Sears storage shed or (2) hauling to a place where it might be safe, namely Yucca Mountain, which isn’t even ready and may never open in the first place?

There is an alternative, one in which the French (who have an extremely good track record with nuclear energy) and the Japanese (who have a good track record, too, but maybe planned and built this particular plant a bit too hastily) have had much success with for decades: reprocessing.

In a nutshell, reprocessing takes the old, spent fuel and makes it reusable with just about the same amount of energy the second time around as it had the first time. However, Jimmy Carter killed that option in 1978 because of “concerns” over nuclear proliferation, and we’ve simply never recovered. What the French and Japanese do is much like recharging the batteries in your iPod (which do eventually wear out, true), but the United States has declared that we’ll continue to use alkaline batteries, thankyouverymuch, because rechargeable batteries are just too scary.

So. Now what?

Well, first, I’d say that we—the U.S., that is—will never get to be a more nuclear-dependent state. It’s unfortunate, but unless there are some significant policy shifts, there is a change in the technology to something more stable such as pellet-bed reactors, and there is an end to the fearmongering that the anti-nuclear community persists in conducting, we’ll never get there. Second, we do have nuclear plants which currently generate 9% of our electrical needs, and they aren’t going away; so, third, there will continue to be waste. Finally, we will never restart waste reprocessing—it’s not economically feasible anymore.

With all that in mind, I recommend that we send our spent fuel to France and other states which have embraced and perfected the nuclear reprocessing cycle. Ship it in small-but-inconveniently-sized-to-prevent-easily-losing-them bits at a time. Sell it to them, or even give it to them. Either way, it gets the spent fuel off our hands and into the hands of people who can use it, and ends the renewed debate (and commensurate spending) over Yucca Mountain at the same time.

If only CNN would would publicize something so radical as that idea…

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