Steven Chu On Solving The Nuclear Waste Problem

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As we’ve detailed, nuclear waste is an expensive problem in the United States. The government is liable to utilities for billions of dollars, due to a failure to produce a central, national location for storing waste.

With the closing of Yucca Mountain, we need to figure out what the plan is. MIT Technology Review interviewed DOE chief Steven Chu on the topic. He talks about reprocessing and setting up regional facilities for storage.

Technology Review: There’s some 50,000 metric tons of nuclear waste scattered among 130 sites across the country. What are you going to do with that waste now?

Steven Chu: Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table. What we’re going to be doing is saying, let’s step back. We realise that we know a lot more today than we did 25 or 30 years ago. The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is saying that the dry cask storage at current sites would be safe for many decades, so that gives us time to figure out what we should do for a long-term strategy. We will be assembling a blue-ribbon panel to look at the issue.

[We’re] looking at reactors that have a high-energy neutron spectrum that can actually allow you to burn down the long-lived actinide waste. [Editor’s note: Actinides include plutonium, which can be dangerous for 100,000 years.] These are fast neutron reactors. There’s others: a resurgence of hybrid solutions of fusion fission where the fusion would impart not only energy, but again creates high-energy neutrons that can burn down the long-lived actinides.

TR: Is this to burn up existing waste? Or to deal with waste in future reactors?

SC: It could be for existing, but mostly for future waste. So we’re looking at, instead of the way we do it today, where you’re using 10 per cent or less of the energy content of fuel, can you actually reduce the amount of waste and the lifetime of the waste.

TR: What about the existing waste?

SC: Some of the waste is already vitrified. There is, in my mind, no economical reason why you would ever think of pulling it back into a potential fuel cycle. So one could well imagine–again, it depends on what the blue-ribbon panel says–one could well imagine that for a certain classification for a certain type of waste, you don’t want to have access to it anymore, so that means you could use different sites than Yucca Mountain, [such as] salt domes. Once you put it in there, the [salt] oozes around it. These are geologically stable for a 50 to 100 million year time scale. The trouble with those type of places for repositories is you don’t have access to it anymore. But say for certain types of waste you don’t want to have access to it anymore–that’s good. It’s a very natural containment.

TR: Waste you know you don’t want to reprocess.

SC: Yes, whereas there would be other waste where you say it has some inherent value, let’s keep it around for a hundred years, two hundred years, because there’s a high likelihood we’ll come back to it and want to recover that.

So the real thing is, let’s get some really wise heads together and figure out how you want to deal with the interim and long-term storage. Yucca was supposed to be everything to everybody, and I think, knowing what we know today, there’s going to have to be several regional areas.

Continue at MIT →

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