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Is Yucca Enough?

Scenarios depict possible nuclear waste futures.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2008

metric-ton limit does not reflect a permanent physical limitation. In 2007, the DOE advocated doubling the allowed capacity of Yucca Mountain, while others have suggested the physical limit at Yucca should be set at 250,000 metric tons or more. Once opened, the planned rate of disposal into Yucca Mountain is 3,000 metric tons per year, 2 implying a drawdown of accumulated storage capacity that will take decades. The DOE, as part of the 1987 amended Nuclear Waste Policy Act, is required to identify a second permanent disposal site prior to 2010. Candidate sites in a number of states have been identified, but with a presumed 25-year development period, a second site would be available no sooner than 2035.

In the meantime, utilization of on-site dry casks as an interim solution apparently will increase, as the creation of one or more government-sponsored interim facilities appears unlikely. The national cost of storing spent fuel in dry casks is estimated at $300 million to $500 million per year. The federal government likely will continue to pay the bill for this dry-cask storage because of a pact with utilities that the government has not fulfilled: The government was to “take title” of HLW by 1998.

The Bush administration has encouraged reprocessing as part of the 2006 Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). The stated objectives of GNEP include furthering national security, transitioning the United States from an open-cycle to closed-cycle nuclear industry in order to exploit theoretical Generation IV nuclear-systems technology, provide fuel and technology to developing countries and to aid in nuclear-waste disposal. In spite of a current membership of 19 countries, GNEP has been controversial. On economic grounds, the Congressional Budget Office determined that this reprocessing path would be much more costly than waste disposal. On a national security basis, the Union of Concerned Scientists and others have implored Congress to reject the program because it would proliferate plutonium. Finally, from a nuclear-waste management standpoint, the technologies envisioned, while producing a lower volume of HLW, still requires eventual disposal in a Yucca-like repository. Meanwhile, the movement towards reprocessing is meeting firm opposition, including a 2008 GNEP budget set at one-half requested levels and with no support for demonstration projects.

International Waste Disposal

Outside of the United States, countries including the U.K., France and most recently Japan, reprocess spent nuclear fuel in a closed cycle as an integral part of their nuclear programs. As a consequence, these countries have created far less HLW per unit of electricity produced, yet they have developed a large amount of very high level waste in the form of plutonium. In this processed form, plutonium is far less toxic and is more easily used to create a fission reaction; thus it is more prone to theft and more desirable to steal than if left in the post-reactor spent state. This has contributed to general concerns over proliferation of weapons-grade nuclear materials and more specifically over rogue nations or terrorists acquiring these materials to build a nuclear bomb.

Nuclear-waste management problems are not unique to the United States. To date, no country