Disposing of nuclear waste

Print edition : February 08, 2013

Miners prepare to take geological samples from the Gorleben salt mine in Germany on June 16, 2011. Photo: Bloomberg

ON January 10, United States Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu announced a new waste disposal strategy for the country. The strategy includes a “pilot interim store” that will become operational in 2021, with the focus on taking used nuclear fuel from currently shutdown power plant sites. By 2025, a larger “full-scale interim store” will open, and an underground disposal facility is planned to be established by 2048 to permanently dispose of the material. The facilities could be co-located in any combination or sited separately. There could even be more than one underground disposal site.

The schedule is meant to reduce the growth of the government’s liabilities under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, under which it was to begin taking spent reactor fuel from power companies in 1998. About 68,000 tonnes of used reactor fuel remains at 72 different power plant sites across the country, with the Department of Energy (DoE) reimbursing power companies the cost. The current production rate of spent fuel is 2,000 tonnes a year. The two interim facilities will accept used reactor fuel at a rate faster than this in order to reduce gradually the inventory at power companies.

A new organisation will be established with “an appropriate balance between independence... and the need for oversight by Congress and the executive branch”, to manage the siting, development and operation of the future waste stores, the DoE said. The body will have adequate authority to access the Nuclear Waste Fund, into which power companies have paid $28 billion since 1982.

Over the next 10 years this organisation will search for suitable sites for these facilities by “encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered” as well as approaching some communities it believes may have suitable geology. The communities may do so “in expectation of the economic activity that would result from the siting, construction, and operation of such a facility”.

This approach has been successful in both Sweden and Finland, where geological disposal sites are now in the licensing stage. A similar approach has been taken in Canada and the United Kingdom for their high-level waste, and in Australia for low-level waste.

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