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MRS Press Release

Experts Embrace New US Strategy on Nuclear Waste

March 18, 2013
Press & Public Relations Contact:

Ryan Rebholz
Communications Manager
Materials Research Society
WARRENDALE, PA - The reawakening of a United States strategy to bury nuclear waste deep underground has won the support of experts, who claim it has always been the best option for dealing with the country's growing nuclear waste stores.

Prachi Patel's article, United States launches new direction to manage nuclear waste, in the March 2013 edition of Energy Quarterly (EQ) in MRS Bulletin recounts the obstacles on the road to successful nuclear waste storage so far and explores what happens next. EQ is published in MRS Bulletin by Cambridge University Press for the Materials Research Society (MRS). This Energy Sector Analysis article, for which Rod Ewing, professor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Michigan, served as feature editor, concludes that science is ready with solutions but questions whether political obstacles and public mistrust can be overcome.

Since the first nuclear power plant opened in the U.S. in 1958 plus the waste from the country's nuclear weapons programs, the problem of what to do with the accumulating nuclear waste has never been successfully addressed. The result is that 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel now sits marooned at power plants, contained either in swimming pool-like structures or in metal or concrete casks. 

This waste contains nearly 40 billion Curies of radioactivity, hundreds of times the amount released from the Chernobyl accident and an amount expected to double by 2040. Storage of this type is safe only up to 100 years and poses a continual threat of leakage.

The main previous strategy to deal with the situation involved creating a geologic repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. However, after two decades and $15 billion spent, the project hit social and political buffers resulting in the Obama administration's decision to shut it down in 2010 and set up a Blue Ribbon commission to explore new options. The commission responded last year by reiterating that a geological repository was the only viable solution. The Obama administration has now endorsed a plan for a pilot interim storage facility estimated to begin operation in 2021, a larger interim facility to accept waste by 2025 and finally, a geological repository operational by 2048.

The international scientific community agrees with the US approach of storing nuclear waste hundreds of meters below ground. The fuel needs to be converted to the right form, be enclosed in multilayer containers and then placed underground in boreholes in suitable geology.

However, what sounds like a straightforward process is fraught with complexity. The "host rock" can change over time and the researchers' most vital current task is to estimate how well a repository will isolate radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years. Exposure to water and air are the two big dangers. Countless materials and geological studies will now be required as well as highly complex computer modeling.

And there are still many social and political objections to be overcome. While scientists now have the solution they believe to be the right one it remains to be seen how politicians and the public will react to this latest chapter in the nuclear waste debate.

Read the full article here

MRS Bulletin is one of the most widely recognized and highly respected publications in advanced materials research. Published monthly, it features technical theme topics that capture a snapshot of the state-of-the-art of materials research. Written by leading experts, the overview articles are useful references for specialists but are also presented at a level understandable to a broad scientific audience. 

Energy Quarterly (EQ) is a special section of MRS Bulletin published in the March, June, September, and December issues, dedicated to the challenges facing materials scientists in the quest for sustainable solutions to the world's energy problems. For further information, go towww.mrs.org/energy-quarterly.

About the Materials Research Society

MRS is an organization of over 12,000 materials researchers from academia, industry and government worldwide, and a recognized leader in promoting the advancement of interdisciplinary materials research and technology to improve the quality of life. MRS members are students and professionals hailing from physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and engineering—the full spectrum of materials research. Headquartered in Warrendale, Pennsylvania (USA), MRS membership now spans 90 countries, with approximately 45 percent of members residing outside the United States.

MRS serves and engages members across generations to advance their careers and promote materials research and innovation. The Society produces high-quality meetings and publications, assuring that members of all career stages can present and publish their most important and timely work to an international and interdisciplinary audience. MRS continues to expand its professional development portfolio, as well as promote diversity and inclusion in the scientific workforce, with career services for researchers worldwide. The Society advocates for the importance of scientific research and innovation to policymakers and the community. And the MRS Awards program honors those whose work has already had a major impact in the field, as well as those whose work shows great promise for future leadership.

For more information about the Materials Research Society visit mrs.org and follow @Materials_MRS.