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The Safety Vote

A prerequisite for sustained nuclear renaissance.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2009

layoffs over the last decade for cost control; lack of interest in nuclear engineering among young students; and the decline of nuclear engineering courses in higher education.

In a report published in May 2008, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated that about 35 percent of those working at U.S. nuclear utilities will be eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years, and that 90,000 new workers will be needed by 2011. In the U.K., the government also is taking measures to meet the expected high levels of demand for trained staff in the industry by working together with the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, an association grouping all the British Nuclear stakeholders.

By pursuing large-scale, integrated programs, nuclear energy operators will overcome the human resources gap. Such programs will include specific training and recruitment efforts, as well as efforts aimed at retaining senior “grey hair” specialists. Additionally, operators will use new knowledge management tools, streamline internal processes, outsource non-core activities and modify the working environment to retain the newer generation of employees.

Fuel Cycle Solutions

Spent fuel and radioactive waste disposal are the most controversial topics surrounding nuclear energy. Some high-level radioactive wastes have very long lifetimes, measured in millions of years. These materials need to be disposed in the safest way possible. As mentioned, in the longer term, scientific and industrial progress will allow them to be converted into low-level, short lifetime wastes, for example, by transmutation. In the meantime, sound treatment of these wastes is the nuclear energy industry’s primary social responsibility, and a critical success factor for the industry’s long-term survival.

Today, there are two main used fuel treatment options: open fuel cycle and closed fuel cycle. The open fuel cycle consists of storing the used nuclear fuel in geologically stable repositories. This is the Swedish and Finnish option. The closed fuel cycle consists of reprocessing the used fuel, recycling the extracted uranium and plutonium in Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, vitrifying the high-level radioactive wastes and storing them in geologically-stable repositories. This industrial process is the French, British and Japanese option. Recycling uranium and plutonium in MOX fuel allows 30 percent more energy to be extracted from the original uranium and leads to a great reduction in the amount of waste to be disposed. This process also preserves uranium resources. Overall, the cost of closed fuel cycle treatment is comparable with that of open fuel cycle.

The United States stopped nuclear fuel reprocessing under a mandate from President Jimmy Carter, and in 1982, the congress elected to directly store used fuel at the Yucca Mountain Repository site. According to the original plan, the site should have been opened in 1998. However, this project is neither accepted by the U.S. Congress, nor by the local population, nor by President Obama, who has stated a goal to shut the site down. Meanwhile, the project costs have skyrocketed. In August 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated its costs at $96 billion, a 67-percent increase from the 2001 estimation. Rising costs and uncertainty for nuclear-waste treatment and disposal represents a