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nuclear safety

Yucca Mountain, spent nuclear fuel, and Oak Ridge

This piece of mine ran as a guest column in Thursday’s print edition of The Oak Ridge Observer, responding to an article about comments by Charlie Hensley:

I share Councilman Charlie Hensley’s concern that the United States needs a clear path for disposition of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors, but I oppose his suggestion that Oak Ridge should volunteer to host a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing pilot plant.

For background, I am convinced that the proposed underground nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be a good place to put nuclear waste, having visited Yucca Mountain and worked on many studies related to it. The repository plan wasn’t perfect, but the repository would provide a higher level of protectiveness than has ever been attempted in human history. Key features of the site that make it a good place to isolate nuclear waste are its remoteness from human activity and the fact that it is exceptionally dry – not only is it a very dry desert climate, but the depth to groundwater is several hundred meters. Not only did that protect the waste from water contact that could release it into the environment, but it meant that the repository could be designed to allow for waste to be retrieved after a century or two, if needed.

The failure of the Yucca Mountain program wasn’t due to technical problems so much as to a combination of bad politics and ineffective management. I believe that the ultimate doom of the Yucca Mountain project was sealed in the mid-1980s when Washington politicians (first a Congressional conference committee and later the Reagan Administration) abruptly removed all other potential repository sites from consideration. That understandably caused Nevada to feel victimized and caused the state to unite in opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository. I don’t think that any of the various technical and practical issues that arose over the next couple of decades were “show-stoppers,” but the program leadership didn’t have the firepower to withstand the continuous stream of technical issues and political opposition that it faced.

The nation needs a new plan for spent fuel now. That plan possibly could include a centralized interim storage site – a way station between commercial reactors and a permanent repository. Sooner or later it must include a permanent underground repository (either at Yucca Mountain or another site), and it might include reprocessing, as Charlie suggests.

Citizen acceptance of nuclear technology makes our city one of the few places that might volunteer to host a facility for spent fuel management, but our general support for nuclear technology should not blind us to the very real risks associated with the technology.

Oak Ridge is not a realistic candidate for a permanent waste isolation facility – for example, there are too many people nearby (and plenty of reason to think that more people will be here in the future) and we have a wet climate. If waste containers failed, there would be abundant opportunities for water to come into contact with waste and release it into water supplies and the food chain.

From a technical standpoint, Oak Ridge is probably a suitable location for consolidated temporary storage of spent reactor fuel in an engineered dry-cask storage facility. A few decades ago, a citizen task force undertook a study of “monitored retrievable storage” and concluded that hosting an MRS facility could be a good opportunity for Oak Ridge, but only if there was strong assurance that this would truly be temporary and only if the local community would have meaningful oversight authority. In the current political climate, I don’t think anyone can assure us that temporary storage would truly be temporary. There’s currently no defined path toward a permanent repository and it’s not even clear to me that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico will be able to receive all of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s stored transuranic waste, as once was promised. Also, with the restrictions that were placed on public information about radioactive materials in the community after September 11, 2001, I don’t see much chance of getting meaningful oversight authority for the community.

Spent-fuel reprocessing is a topic with which Oak Ridge has a lot of experience. As I understand it, most of the reprocessing technologies ever used were developed and tested here at ORNL. Research and development on new methods for reprocessing can and should happen here again. Reprocessing fuel is many times messier than storing it, though. Existing reprocessing technologies use “wet chemistry”, inevitably leading to worker exposures and environmental releases, and generating wastes that can be very difficult to manage. DOE still hasn’t found a way to deal successfully with wastes from past reprocessing – weapons-related reprocessing at sites like Hanford and Savannah River, R&D on reprocessing at ORNL, and experimental reprocessing of commercial spent fuel at West Valley, New York.

In my opinion, no community should volunteer to host a reprocessing facility for spent fuel from commercial reactors until there is some assurance that all aspects of the necessary technology – including effective management of the waste – are proven and ready. That meaningful community oversight that Oak Ridge sought for the MRS would help a lot, too. Even when those criteria are in place, because of the size of the population that could be exposed to releases and the vulnerability of our natural environment, Oak Ridge probably won’t be a good site for a full-scale facility, or even a pilot plant.

It’s great that Oak Ridge residents support nuclear technology, but we shouldn’t let our enthusiasm blind us to the risks.


What we don’t understand can hurt us

Disposition of uranium-233 has been an issue for DOE in Oak Ridge for a number of years. Now the New York Times has an article about challenges in getting rid of U-233. The article only minimally mentions the challenges that exist at the ORNL facility, where the U-233 is now, but what the article discusses has implications for Oak Ridge.

Since this is a fissile material that could be used for weapons, criticality safety and safeguards/security are major factors in managing it — and have been absorbing some of the money that otherwise would be spent on environmental cleanup of the DOE sites in Oak Ridge. The stuff is also radiologically hot (due to radioactive progeny formed by decay of U-233), which makes its removal and processing far more complicated — and expensive.

At one time, many of us hoped that thorium-229, a medically useful isotope formed by radioactive decay of U-233, would be extracted from the U-233 stockpile for use in treating patients. The idea of using this material to save lives was scrapped due to  complexities of maintaining safety when processing the material and by Congressional action that barred DOE from attempting it. Two years ago, in an environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact, DOE announced that it would blend the U-233 with nonfissile “depleted” uranium (U-238) and dispose of the blended material underground in a licensed facility, such as at the Nevada Test Site. Now the Times article says DOE no longer plans to “downblend” (I recall hearing rumblings of this change), but would instead would be solidified in a ceramic form before disposal — and critics are saying that’s not safe enough.

While controversy continues, the project is providing good jobs in Oak Ridge, but its cost means that other projects that would benefit the community in the long term are being delayed — and the safety/security concerns are sitting here in our backyard instead of at a remote site out west. After the recent breach at Y-12, I believe we are all more aware of these things than we had been in recent years. (I see that Frank Munger touched on this recently.)

Recognizing and understanding these types of issues is a continuing need and challenge. What we don’t understand can hurt us, and we can’t depend on the Department of Energy to look out for the local community if we don’t look out for ourselves. (I miss the Local Oversight Committee!)

Added September 25: Frank Munger’s blog now includes an item about the report that led to the NY Times article.