MIT Energy Initiative
[Website] The ongoing problems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi powerplant — caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami — have been significantly exacerbated by the presence of used fuel housed in the reactor buildings, and demonstrate the urgency needed in dealing with such waste, the report’s authors say. It specifically underscores the importance of finding a way to deal with the growing amount of spent nuclear fuel housed at existing U.S. nuclear plants.
The report, a summary of which was released last September, strongly recommends that an interim solution be developed to remove spent fuel from storage facilities at reactor sites, and move it to regional, medium-term repositories where the fuel can be monitored and protected as it decays over time. Spent fuel loses much of its radioactivity with every passing decade, as the most dangerous radioactive isotopes decay and lose much of their potency during the first 50 years, thus diminishing the problem of long-term storage…
While the situation in Japan has not changed any of the basic conclusions of the study, called “The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” the study’s executive director Charles Forsberg, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, said the recent crisis “will place more emphasis on getting a geological repository program up and running” for permanent storage of the United States’ spent nuclear fuel. Doing so, the study says, faces no real scientific hurdles, and is essentially a social and political issue at this point.
Even before the problems in Japan, Moniz said, there had been “increased interest in Congress, among the chairs of relevant committees” on looking at options for interim spent fuel storage. In response to a question, Moniz said that the right time for the United States to start looking seriously into how to set up regional interim storage facilities “was a few years ago.”
In a postscript to the report’s introduction, the authors point out two other likely consequences, at least in the short run: The cost of new nuclear plants is likely to increase, as a result of the increased perception of risk associated with such plants, which will raise the cost of capital for plant construction; and public support for a resurgence of nuclear power, which had been growing in the United States, is likely to suffer at least a temporary setback. Already, several countries have suspended or delayed plans for new nuclear plants or for extending the operating lifetime of existing plants.
One important factor that might help counter the erosion of public support for a renewal of nuclear power as a result of the Japanese crisis is to put clear policies in place now for dealing with the spent fuel, Moniz said. “Solving the nuclear waste problem does influence public attitudes,” he said.
Because of repeated delays in creating a national long-term storage repository for spent nuclear fuel (SNF), U.S. nuclear reactor sites already house more spent fuel than those in Japan, Forsberg noted. That confirms the study’s existing conclusions about the need for a comprehensive U.S. policy on spent fuel, to replace the present ad-hoc policy.
The Japanese crisis “will place a greater emphasis on our recommendation for centralized storage or disposal in a repository with the option of SNF recovery,” Forsberg said, referring to the report’s suggestion that used fuel be stored in such a way that it could easily be recovered later if the nation decides to pursue a nuclear program based on reprocessing it to produce new fuel for a future generation of reactors….