Lt. Col. Chris Carter, in his Dec. 15 column “Let the Navy lead US energy transition to nuclear power,” advocated for more nuclear power plants in the United States as a safe, reliable and efficient way to produce clean energy and reduce carbon emissions.
Carter is right that nuclear power plants are a reliable and efficient way to produce electric energy, but he overlooks a key safety issue: the long-term storage of nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel pellets.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. generates about 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel each year. Virtually all the spent fuel is stored in either steel-lined concrete pools filled with water or in steel or concrete dry containers at 70 nuclear plant locations spread across the U.S. The DOE, on its website, writes, “For the foreseeable future, the spent fuel can safely stay at the reactor sites.”
That may be true in the short term of a few decades, but it is not and never was the plan for long-term storage of the spent fuel. For safe and secure long-term storage the spent fuel must be transferred to a deep geologic repository, where nuclear waste can slowly lose its radioactivity over the course of thousands of years without causing harm.
Deep geologic repositories for safe storage are mined at depths of 250-1,000 meters in stable geological formations. Isolation of the radioactive material is provided by a combination of engineered and natural barriers including rock, salt and clay. This combination of waste packaging, an engineered repository, and the geology all provide barriers to prevent radionuclides from reaching humans, animals, groundwater and the environment. The only facility of this type in the U.S. is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located in a remote area of the Chihuahuan Desert southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico. However, this plant is not licensed for the disposal of spent fuel.
The federal government established a nuclear waste fund in 1982 requiring anyone who was getting some of their electricity from nuclear energy to pay a small amount of money to deal with the waste. The fund was intended for spending on a permanent nuclear waste disposal facility in the United States. From 1982-87, the DOE explored nine sites for permanent waste disposal. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the first choice, but plans to build a facility there were derailed by state and federal politics.
Carter argues that the U.S. Navy has an excellent record of safely operating nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers and submarines. He writes, “the Navy already has reactors no longer in use which could be retrofitted to provide reliable energy for naval facilities and surrounding communities.”
It’s possible that these naval ship reactors would meet regulatory requirements, could be licensed for and would be suitable for commercial power generation. However, that doesn’t address the issue of safe and secure disposal of spent fuel.
Spent fuel from nuclear reactors on Navy ships goes to DOE-managed facilities and is stored at four locations: the Hanford Site in Washington, the Idaho National Laboratory, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Fort St. Vrain Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation in Colorado. The spent fuel at the Idaho National Laboratory is stored in various ways, including wet pool storage, indoor dry vaults, outdoor shallow below-grade vaults, and cask storage on concrete pads. None of these facilities has provisions for safe long-term storage of radioactive waste.
The U.S. government needs to design, build and license a deep geologic repository with sufficient space for permanent storage of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants and Navy nuclear reactors. Until this is done, the idea of building new nuclear power plants or using existing Navy reactors as a means of producing clean electric power is short-sighted and ignores one of the most important factors — safety.
Paul Ruffle of Williamsburg spent his career as a stress analysis engineer, product development engineer and a mechanical design engineer, including 24 years in the defense industry.
Read More: Nuclear power push cannot ignore waste storage – The Virginian-Pilot