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Blue Ribbon Mission

Can a broadly based committee resolve the nuclear waste dilemma?

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2010

important to gaining public acceptance for interim storage sites.”

This is true whatever nuclear fuel-cycle options the United States pursues. Thomas Cochran of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) argued that the BRC needs to get the geologic storage program back on track. The prevailing sentiment is that the United States can take time to develop permanent storage with a consolidated interim storage facility so that there will be better understanding of the technologies, and more public support for a long-term solution. How to manage, fund, and develop long-term storage is a vital issue on the BRC agenda.

Reprocessing Realities

Invited experts speaking at the BRC’s May meeting expressed almost unanimous opposition to reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel—some because of the high costs, some because of the technology involved, and others because of the increased risk of proliferation.

Harvard University’s Bunn put proliferation in perspective when he said: “Reprocessing and recycling using the only technologies now commercially available means separating, fabricating and transporting tons of weapons-usable plutonium every year—when even a few kilograms is enough for a bomb. This inevitably raises risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism not posed by direct disposal.”

The BRC heard witnesses say that because of this proliferation risk, reprocessing should be studied but not implemented until there’s more certainty about how to prevent materials from being weaponized, and international agreements are established to manage the risks.

But the issue is more complex than the experts’ testimony indicated. If there’s a great increase in demand for nuclear power, as the commission discussed with DOE Program Analyst Matthew Crozat at its initial meeting, then demand for uranium will increase and reprocessing will become a source of reactor fuel as well as an opportunity to reduce the amount of spent fuel requiring permanent geological storage.

How we treat nuclear wastes in the future might be determined, in part, by whether or not we’ll need the energy contained in the waste. At present, most experts agree that reprocessing is both too expensive and unnecessary, since there seems to be plenty of uranium ore available. That might change, however, and reprocessed fuel might become needed to achieve long-term national energy sufficiency and supply new reactors built to fight climate change.

Reprocessing also might be the best way to get spent fuel into a form that’s safer for long-term disposal. This would be accomplished by removing the long-lived material, leaving fission products that have short half-lives and are easier to store permanently in a geologic formation. Such objectives would require new reactor and reprocessing technologies that haven’t yet been developed. Thus the commission’s recommendations need to allow for a dynamic evolution of response to future events, and must weigh economic and proliferation factors in the context of long-term energy goals.

Focusing the Mission

The commission’s mandate is very broad and could easily be overwhelming to ordinary mortals. The commission doesn’t have the time to solve every problem of nuclear waste disposal and management. Indeed, experts suggest that some of the more intractable problems of reprocessing, proliferation and permanent geologic storage can, and