As the Fukushima-Daiichi crisis unfolds, the U.S. DOE’s Blue Ribbon Commission is preparing its initial recommendations on how America should deal with its commercial nuclear waste. Early...
Is Yucca Enough?
Scenarios depict possible nuclear waste futures.
in the world has begun to store its spent fuel in permanent repositories. The world has accumulated about 250,000 metric tons of highly radioactive waste. The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and others have encouraged cooperation among nations to minimize the proliferation of weapons-grade materials and to consider regional solutions to waste repositories. Indeed, a pillar of the 1968 Non-proliferation Treaty is the tenet that all countries, following other pillars of non-proliferation and disarmament, have the right to pursue nuclear energy.
The concept of international cooperation has extended to nuclear-waste management as well. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has discussed combining both regional and country-specific nuclear-waste repositories, utilizing the safest geologic structures available. While a number of countries ultimately will use their own repositories, the approach especially has appeal for countries with smaller nuclear programs and that lack the correct geology for repository siting. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and others have proposed the use of deep boreholes, thousands of meters inside the earth’s mantle, as a possible future disposal technology. 3 The geology needed to support this approach is found in many places around the world. The benefits of this method include a very stable resting place well below the water table and possibly the ability to rely on the waste’s thermal energy to create a melt zone that eventually cools and further encapsulates the nuclear waste inside solid rock.
Four Plausible Futures
The role of nuclear power hinges on the same fundamental elements as in the past: public opinion, relative power economics, and safety concerns stemming from both nuclear proliferation and nuclear-waste disposal. Utilizing a scenario-based approach permits testing the ranges of possible future outcomes and their impacts on the electric utility industry. Within each scenario we can create consistent assumptions for the future that integrate issues relating to the impacts of nuclear power, emissions, other technologies and larger world trends.
The assumptions for each established scenario can help to define the role of future nuclear additions and their relative economics. From this, simulation models are used to measure the amount of nuclear generation, the displacement of CO 2 and other emissions and subsequent nuclear waste created in each scenario. 4 All scenarios share common once-through nuclear technology, based on the significant economic advantage from avoiding reprocessing costs and the relatively low cost of mining and enrichment of nuclear fuel. Further, all existing nuclear plants are assumed to extend their operating permits to achieve a sixty-year life. Yucca Mountain is presumed to open, but is delayed until 2023. All scenarios are evaluated from 2008 to 2050.
• Global Turmoil: Terrorist attacks constrain gas and oil imports. Gazprom disruptions in gas supply leads to global stagnation, and a U.S. recession, which is followed by sustained low economic growth. Reducing dependence on Middle East oil and LNG imports becomes critical. The U.S. develops a “protectionist” view due to import restrictions, and struggles to become self-reliant. Marked by little competition or retirement of generation capacity, extended recovery from overbuild, and utilities’ gains vis-à-vis IPPs in a business environment where competition takes a