Nuclear Waste Disposal

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Finland is moving ahead with a project to investigate underground disposal of nuclear waste at Olkiluoto. Under the plan, spent fuel rods will be encapsulated in large canisters made of an inner shell of iron for mechanical strength and a thick outer shell of copper to resist corrosion. The canisters will be placed in holes bored into the tunnel floors and surrounded by clay to prevent direct water flow to the canisters. The facility could begin accepting waste from Finland's four nuclear reactors in 2020.

Onkalo, an underground waste disposal research facility,

Finland is moving ahead with a project to investigate underground disposal of nuclear waste at Olkiluoto. Under the plan, spent fuel rods will be encapsulated in large canisters made of an inner shell of iron for mechanical strength and a thick outer shell of copper to resist corrosion. The canisters will be placed in holes bored into the tunnel floors and surrounded by clay to prevent direct water flow to the canisters. The facility could begin accepting waste from Finland's four nuclear reactors in 2020.

Onkalo, an underground waste disposal research facility,

of approving a geologic site remains fraught with difficulties.

A prime case in point is the proposed facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which has been under consideration for two decades. Recently the site was found to have considerably more water than anticipated. It remains uncertain whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will license the site.

Delays in resolving waste management (even if it is approved, it is unlikely that Yucca Mountain will be accepting waste before 2015) may complicate efforts to construct new power plants. By law, the government was to begin moving spent fuel from reactor sites to a repository by 1998. Failure to do so has led to a need for increased local storage at many sites and associated unhappiness among neighbors, towns and states.

Perhaps the first country to build a permanent storage site for its high-level nuclear waste will be Finland. At Olkiluoto, the location of two nuclear reactors, excavation has begun on an underground research facility called Onkalo. Extending about half a kilometer underground, the Onkalo project will involve study of the rock structure and groundwater flows and will test the disposal technology in actual deep underground conditions. If all goes according to plan and the necessary gov ernment licenses are obtained, the first canisters of waste could be emplaced in 2020. By 2130 the repository would be complete, and the access routes would be filled and sealed. The money to pay for the facility has been levied on the price of Finnish nuclear power since the late 1970s.

To address the waste management problem in the U.S., the government should take title to the spent fuel stored at commercial reactor sites across the country and consolidate it at one or more federal interim storage sites until a permanent disposal facility is built. The waste can be temporarily stored safely and securely for an extended period. Such extended temporary storage, perhaps even for as long as 100 years, should be an integral part of the disposal strategy. Among other benefits, it would take the pressure off government and industry to come up with a hasty disposal solution.

Meanwhile the Department of Energy should not abandon Yucca Mountain. Instead it should reassess the suitability of the site under various conditions and modify the project's schedule as needed. If nuclear power expanded globally to one million megawatts, enough high-level waste and spent fuel would be generated in the open fuel cycle to fill a Yucca Mountain-size facility every three and a half years. In the court of public opinion, that fact is a significant disincentive to the expansion of nuclear power, yet it is a problem that can and must be solved.

The Threat of Proliferation in conjunction with the domestic program of waste management just outlined, the president should continue the diplomatic effort to create an international system of fuel supplier countries and user countries. Supplier countries such as the U.S., Russia, France and the U.K. would sell fresh fuel to user countries with smaller nuclear programs and commit to removing the spent fuel from them. In return, the user countries would forgo the construction of fuel-producing facilities. This arrangement would greatly alleviate the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation because the chief risks for proliferation involve not the nuclear power plants themselves but the fuel enrichment and reprocessing plants. The current situation with Iran's uranium enrichment program is a prime example. A scheme in which fuel is leased to users is a necessity in a world where nuclear power is to expand threefold, because such an expansion will inevitably involve the spread of nuclear power plants to some countries of proliferation concern.

A key to making the approach work is that producing fuel does not make economic sense for small nuclear power programs. This fact underlies the marketplace reality that the world is already divided into supplier and user countries. Instituting the supplier/user model is largely a matter, albeit not a simple one, of formalizing the current situation more permanently through new agreements that reinforce commercial realities.

Although the proposed regime is inherently attractive to user nations—they get an assured supply of cheap fuel and are relieved of the problem of dealing with waste materials—other incentives should also be put in place because the user states would be agreeing to go beyond the requirements of the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. For example, if a global system of tradable carbon credits were instituted, user nations adhering to the fuel-leasing rules could be granted credits for their new nuclear power plants.

Iran is the most obvious example today of a nation that the global community would rather see as a "user state" than as a producer of enriched uranium. But it is not the only difficult case. Another nation whose program must be addressed promptly is Brazil, where an enrichment facility is under construction supposedly to provide fuel for the country's two nuclear reactors. A consistent approach to countries such as Iran and Brazil will be needed if nuclear power is to be expanded globally without exacerbating proliferation concerns.

The Terawatt Future a terawatt—one million megawatts—of "carbon-free" power is the scale needed to make a significant dent in projected carbon dioxide emissions at midcentury. In the terms used by Socolow and Pacala, that contribution would correspond to one to two of the seven required "stabilization wedges." Reaching a terawatt of nuclear power by 2050 is certainly challenging, requiring deployment of about 2,000 megawatts a month. A capital investment of $2 trillion over several decades is called for, and power plant cost reduction, nuclear waste management and a proliferation-resistant international fuel cycle regime must all be addressed aggres-

sively over the next decade or so. A critical determinant will be the degree to which carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel use are priced, both in the industrial world and in the large emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil.

The economics of nuclear power are not the only factor governing its future use. Public acceptance also turns on issues of safety and nuclear waste, and the future of nuclear power in the U.S. and much of Europe remains in question. Regarding safety, it is essential that NRC regulations are enforced diligently, which has not always been the case.

In the scenario developed as part of the M.I.T. study, it emerged that the U.S. would approximately triple its nuclear deployment—to about 300,000 megawatts—if a terawatt were to be realized globally. The credibility of such a scenario will be largely determined in the forthcoming decade by the degree to which the first-mover incentives in the 2005 Energy Policy Act are exercised, by the capability of the government to start moving spent fuel from reactor sites and by whether the American political process results in a climate change policy that will significantly limit carbon dioxide emissions. ®

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