Getting rid of spent nuclear power fuelDennis Byrne
March 22, 2011
So, what are we supposed to do with spent nuclear power fuel? Rocket it into outer space?
Thanks to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and anti-nuke champions, tens of thousands of tons of dangerously radioactive fuel rods have been "temporarily" stored for up to 60 years on American nuclear power sites, many in Illinois. Many are stored like those in pools of water that are threatening to go dry at the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan.
Engineers and scientists say the spent fuel could pose a greater danger than a meltdown of the core reactors. Common sense and science dictate that spent fuel should be stored far away from the power plant, someplace permanent that wouldn't magnify the consequences of a catastrophic accident.
Why aren't they? Politics.
Scientific studies concluded that the best burial site is under Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. Congress approved and required ComEd and other nuclear power customers to pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund to finance disposal. So far, we have coughed up more than $35 billion, of which $11 billion or so has been swallowed up by Yucca Mountain.
The site was to begin accepting the material in 1998, but Clinton and then Obama, caving in to parochial interests and anti-nuke zealots, threw up years of roadblocks. (President George W. Bush supported Yucca Mountain as the nation's first long-term underground site for high-level radioactive waste.) Reid proudly pronounced the project dead last month as Obama zeroed it out in his 2012 budget. The president also formed a blue-ribbon commission to study — again — the best alternative for the nation's nuclear future, including disposal of the waste.
But no more studies are needed. There's a technology, called the Integral Fast Reactor, that could produce abundant, safe, environmentally friendly and less expensive nuclear power. IFR supporters said it would provide an inexhaustible and domestic fuel supply, while solving the spent-fuel problem.
Argonne National Laboratory, whose baby it was, demonstrated at its Idaho reactor development facility that the technology could safely shut down power plants in both the Chernobyl- and Three Mile Island-type accidents.
The key was a new metallic fuel alloy that could be cleaned and used again and again in the reactor. Charles Till, former director of civilian nuclear power development at Argonne, said the technology, using a common metal refining process, would extend fuel supplies more than a hundred-fold, while slashing the volume and lifetime of the radioactive waste. As a bonus, the fuel had no weapons value.
Despite IFR's promise, the newly elected Clinton and his energy secretary, Hazel O'Leary, with the support of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., successfully torpedoed the program. Illinois Democrats — the then-Rep. Dick Durbin and Sens. Carol Moseley Braun and Paul Simon — cognizant of IFR's jobs, first supported the project, but later joined other Democrats to cancel funding. They were for it before they were against it.
As if the matter hadn't been studied enough: In 2001 the Department of Energy launched yet another study to evaluate the 19 best reactor designs on 27 different criteria. Guess which was ranked best? The IFR.
Obviously, the IFR would not have solved the spent-fuel problems in the old reactors revealed by Japan's troubles. So, back to the original question: What do we do with the spent fuel? In the face of the gross politicization of the project and three wasted decades, the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, proposed the creation of a self-sustaining, quasi-government corporation to administer the fund and manage the program. And 64 House Republicans have endorsed legislation that would, while re-energizing nuclear construction, reopen the Yucca Mountain option.
Exelon Corp., which operates nuclear reactors here and elsewhere, says that it can safely shut down its reactors in emergencies, and that its sites have sufficient "portable, high-capacity pumps to ensure the pools remain filed" with water to keep the rods cool. The anti-nuke crowd obviously doesn't agree, having challenged in court a recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission finding that, in effect, concluded that on-site storage is safe, for now.
We can't go back more than a half-century to pretend that nuclear power plants weren't built. Even though the anti-nuke coalition of Democrats, liberals and environmentalists seems to think so. If they weren't living in such a dream world, maybe they would have come up with a better solution.
Dennis Byrne, a Chicago-area writer, blogs at the Barbershop at ChicagoNow.
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