- 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.
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