IN previous articleI discussed some of the developments that are taking place to make nuclear power safer, for example that major accidents like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima are simply not possible anymore.
But another major issue that opponents of nuclear power generally raise is what to do with the radioactive waste that is produced by nuclear power generation.
I asked this question to Dr. Kathryn Huff, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Nuclear Energy.
Nuclear waste solutions
The good news is that the amount of waste produced is generally small. In reality, nuclear power plants simply stored the waste on site, but this is not a long-term solution to the problem.
Nuclear waste storage is always a hot political topic. Many municipalities do not want waste to be dumped near them, and some even object to waste being transported through their cities. This has hampered projects such as the proposed Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility in Nevada, which has been explored as a potential repository since the 1970s.
Dr. Huff explained that nuclear waste is currently stored on-site at nuclear power plants, but the DOE is relaunching an initiative to find a storage facility. Such permanent storage facilities are an approach favored by several other countries.
In fact, Finland is currently building the world’s first permanent high-level nuclear waste repository on an island off the west coast of Finland. The waste will be buried in about 100 tunnels about 1,400 feet underground. The facility is expected to hold all of Finland’s nuclear waste until around 2100 and is intended to contain spent fuel rods for 100,000 years. The structure rests on several barriers designed to prevent water from entering the waste and carrying it to the water supply. Commencement of operations is expected next year.
A different approach is the recycling of nuclear waste to obtain fissile and fertile materials for further energy production from nuclear power plants. The reprocessing of nuclear waste allows for the recovery of plutonium, which is then mixed with depleted uranium oxide to make fresh fuel.
This process reduces the volume of high-level waste (HLW) by about 85% while extracting up to 30% more energy from the uranium. It also reduces the amount of uranium that needs to be mined.
Recycling policies apply in France, some other European countries, as well as in Russia, China and Japan.
Dr. Huff explained that these policies work in France because the same entity is responsible for all parts of the nuclear process – from reactor, waste and storage. This is not the case in the US, complicating efforts to address the issue. For the USA, this is more of a long-term option
Increasing nuclear power
Finally, I asked Dr. Huff what the US is doing to start nuclear power in the US and push US technology to the rest of the world.
She said political support for nuclear power is improving. The bipartisan infrastructure bill earmarked $6 billion for current reactors and $2.5 billion more for new reactor designs. There are initiatives for nuclear-powered hydrogen and production tax credits for clean energy, including nuclear. The goal is to double nuclear power in the US by 2050
The International Energy Agency (IEA) also believes the world will need to double nuclear production by 2050 as it decarbonises. So what is the US doing to help this effort?
There is an office for international nuclear cooperation in the DOE – International Affairs Office. Because of concerns about energy security, there has been a lot of interest in American nuclear designs from Eastern Europe. Dr. Huff noted that we built American reactors in China, but they want to commercialize their own technologies (which were clearly influenced by American designs).
In conclusion, Dr. Huff noted that not all options are suitable for replacing decommissioned coal plants. Energy planning models show the need for a second-to-second energy balance in the network. A day-to-day view might make you think you need less storage than you really do, but short-term balancing requires responsive performance.
Nuclear plants are physically similar in size and have the same energy output and reliability as coal plants. The network is set up for these switches. The workforce is also compatible. Coal-fired power plants employ similar types of skilled trades as would be needed in nuclear power plants.