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Is Yucca Enough?

Scenarios depict possible nuclear waste futures.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2008

Nuclear-waste management is a multi-billion dollar problem, and the future of nuclear power will depend on its resolution. Four scenarios depict possible outcomes and impacts on the electric power industry.

Nuclear-waste management is a multi-billion dollar problem wrapped in a complex web of politics, public opinion and technology choices. Embracing a greater future role for nuclear energy requires, in part, resolving the perennially deferred problem of managing and ultimately disposing of the high-level waste (HLW) from this nation’s current and proposed nuclear power reactors.

Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site studied for over 30 years, was identified during the Reagan administration as the intended permanent repository for the disposal of United States HLW from nuclear reactors. However, various entities, including the state of Nevada, have sued the federal government with hopes of preventing the Yucca Mountain waste repository from ever opening, and other states have shown reluctance to allow transit of the nuclear waste, especially near populated centers.

More than $9 billion later, the debate over Yucca Mountain as a waste repository is at a stalemate. Despite DOE’s recent license application to the Nuclear Regulatotry Commision, the site is at least eight years from receiving the first shipment of spent nuclear fuel. Meanwhile, many of the storage pools located at nuclear plants throughout the country are nearing capacity, increasingly requiring the spent fuel to be stored in dry casks. The Bush administration appears to want to reverse the 30-year policy of storing nuclear waste, by instead encouraging new design of power plants that can reprocess the spent fuel.

The management of nuclear waste from power plants includes consideration of both costs and risks of supplying electricity from nuclear energy. In this larger context, scenario analysis is used to identify the role that nuclear energy may play under alternative conditions. These scenarios are time-based views of plausible futures that help planners and decision makers share a common understanding of the component pieces that may impact their decisions. Like traveling down a road, the scenario may contain signs that aid in making decisions at a later time and off-ramps or opportunities prompting decisions to take another turn. When applied to nuclear-waste management, scenario analysis can provide a common framework for discussion and yield better decisions.

Fuel Cycles and Disposal

Nuclear fuel begins as raw mined uranium ore with a low concentration of the desired uranium 235. Mining and enrichment constitute the front-end of the fuel cycle. For the operational phase of the fuel cycle, enriched fuel typically will remain in the reactor and produce electricity for three to five years. Storage, ultimate transport and disposal constitute the back-end of the fuel cycle. Fuel cycles can be open or closed. In an open cycle, also called once-through, enriched fuel is used once within the reactor to produce power until it is