Dealing With Nuclear Waste

The Independent reports today on a written statement by UK Energy Minister Hendry to Parliament on what the Government is deciding to do with its radioactive waste from nuclear power generation.

The British government has decided for a project to convert plutonium waste into MOX fuel, maybe for “a new generation of nuclear power plants“.

The decision, which ends decades of uncertainty on how to deal with a growing stockpile of more than 112 tonnes of plutonium waste, was presented as a written Parliamentary statement by the energy minister, Charles Hendry.

Indeed for half a century Britain, like many other countries with nuclear power plants, has not known what to do with nuclear power’s most toxic waste product.

Nuclear power relies on highly radioactive “fuel”, formed usually in the shape of rods, which engage in a chain reaction in the core of a nuclear reactor and produce heat. The chain reaction converts substances eventually into other substances which are no longer suitable for purpose; the fuel is “spent” and must be replaced. But the “spent fuel” remains highly radioactive. It is very toxic, must be carefully shielded from the environment and people, and this must go on with current spent fuel for (the most optimistic minimum estimate) 10,000 years (the level at which radioactivity has reduced to that of the originally-mined uranium and the original basis for US standards).

What do you do with it? Where do you put it?

It is not clear that anyone has come close to solving this problem. Nuclear power has been around for half a century, this waste has been accumulating, and the nation with the most plants, the US, has no solution. There are and have been many proposals, but so far none has turned out to be workable. Most of the spent fuel is still stored on-site in pools filled with water (water is pretty good at stopping the neutrons which are the main product of radioactivity in nuclear fuel rods. You only need a few meters of it to trap all but a few which get lost in the background). No one thinks that is a solution for more than a few decades, let alone a minimum of 10,000 years. There is a movement to store as much as possible in so-called “dry casks”: sealed physical containment vessels which are self-cooling after the spent fuel has been sitting around for some number of years. But you still have to put the casks somewhere where they will be safe for a minumum of 10,000 years. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was for many years the preferred prospective location. One wonders, however, about the stability of any structure in a seismically active area of recent volcanism. Eight volcanoes have erupted within 50km of the site in the last million years (op. cit.), but maybe it’s OK for 10,000 years? That is the main point: nobody really knows. No one with a decent set of choices could reasonably choose a place in a seismically and volcanically active area. That says, correctly in my view, that there is no decent set of choices. That is the way it has been for half a century.

It is a problem in Germany also. Germany processes spent fuel in France (and soon in GB) and transports the processed product in dry casks (called “Castor”) by rail back into Germany. The transport has been regularly plagued by protests which block the rail lines, and a transport typically takes days to weeks. Protesters used to aim for Germany’s withdrawal from nuclear power. Now that the German Government has committed to that, what is the latest protest (ongoing at time of writing) about? The protesters are apparently not content with the “temporary” storage site at Gorleben in Lower Saxony (it is in an underground salt deposit, which they claim with some reason is geologically unstable over the long term) and apparently want it to be stored at a reactor site at Philippsburg, near Karlsruhe. That is unlikely to be long term (in the sense of 10,000 years) either, since most authorities judge that any long-term site must be underground, in geologically stable ground. The storage issue has not been solved in Germany, either.

What about Britain? The Independent speaks of

……..decades of uncertainty on how to deal with a growing stockpile of more than 112 tonnes of plutonium waste, was presented as a written Parliamentary statement by the energy minister, Charles Hendry.
Plutonium waste has been a headache for successive governments because it is a highly dangerous radioactive material that can be converted into weapons-grade material, making it a security risk. It’s also expensive to store.

So Britain doesn’t have a long-term solution either. Who does? (Maybe France or Japan?) What to do with the waste is a major unsolved issue with nuclear power.

According to the Independent, the “uncertainty” has gone. It’s going to be converted into “mixed oxide” (MOX) fuel. Fuel? Yes, for reactors which have not yet been built. So you solve the waste problem by building new reactors – which, um, then don’t create waste? Of course they do. You are thus using the present waste in a process which will ultimately generate even more waste, as well of course as some electricity. So, problem solved? Obviously not.

Suppose one just wants to store MOX fuel, not use it. Is it, say, less toxic than spent fuel? No. Can be stored more easily? Not as far as I know. Can be used somehow? Yes, in those new nuclear power plants; we’ve just been that route.

Does this solve the nuclear-waste-product problem in any reasonable way? No. Since the UK government is full of clever people who can think at least this far, it could be that there is another explanation for this decision.

One thought. Somebody will be paid £3bn pounds for doing it, if it happens. Money goes somewhere, and I imagine the prospective recipients might be rather keen on their share. The new waste generated by the new reactors that use the MOX fuel that came from the old waste is, well, a problem for someone who comes along later. Science will solve everything, won’t it?

But it’s not going to be clear sailing. The Independent continues:

But although Mr Hendry made it clear that the Government sees the “Mox option” as a priority, it is not certain that a new £3bn plant to convert the plutonium into Mox fuel will ever be built.

Mindful of the financial and technological disaster of the current Mox fuel plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, which has cost £1.34bn and produced a tiny fraction of the fuel it was scheduled to make, Mr Hendry said that a clear case has still to be made for a second Mox plant at Sellafield.

Oh. So the first, smaller attempt to do this kind of thing failed?

Well, let me qualify that. £1.34bn went somewhere, somebody got it for doing something, so that all went OK. But it apparently didn’t go into the ostensible goal of processing X amount of plutonium into MOX.

And on the basis of that experience apparently the best option is to try again, more and bigger?

I am sure the mistakes made in building the first reprocessing plant will all have been cataloged. I am also sure that attempts will be made assiduously to avoid them when building the second, bigger plant. I have also studied troubled large projects, indeed giving evidence before a UK Parliamentary committee on one. Many big projects fail to deliver on the goals at the time of commencement. Indeed, it’s a first for me to see someone suggest a larger second project on the back of a failed, smaller first one. Surely it should be received wisdom by now that any serious, careful estimate of the cost of such a second, bigger plant be accompanied with an equally serious, careful estimate of the likelihood of success or failure?

Given that this plan for apparently “dealing with” nuclear waste leaves all the questions open about how one ultimately deals with the waste, could something else be going on? What could it be?

First, contractors earn money for building the plant, whether it works or not, so they would be happy. Second, a current government can be seen to be “doing something” about the problem, no matter how superficial. Third, by processing and reusing fuel, the issue of what finally to do about the nuclear waste is put off into the future. (That strategy has clearly worked for governments in the past!)

Let us, though, be clear what the situation is. There is a real scientific and social problem of what on earth one can do with the highly toxic waste products of fission reactors. One cannot expect the current UK government, indeed any government at all, to implement a true solution when none is known yet to exist.

So maybe the Independent is being inappropriately forthright when it claims that uncertainty is at an end. Here is what Energy Minister Hendry actually wrote, as reported by the Independent:

“Only when the Government is confident that its preferred option could be implemented safely and securely, that is affordable, deliverable, and offers value for money, will it be in a position to proceed with a new Mox plant,” Mr Hendry said. In its response to a public consultation on Britain’s plutonium problem, the Government has not rejected other options. One is to convert the 112 tonnes of plutonium dioxide powder stored at Sellafield into glass or concrete blocks that could be buried permanently in a deep waste repository. Another is to use the plutonium directly as fuel for fast reactors, if these can be developed commercially in the coming decade.

“While converting the plutonium into Mox is the most credible and technologically mature option, the Government remains open to any alternative proposals for plutonium management that offer better value to the taxpayer, and will seek to gather more details on all options,” Mr Hendry said.

That seems less than certain to me. According to this, the UK government has set priorities on the “viable” options. It has not actually decided to do anything.

So am I (and the Independent) making a lot of fuss about not very much? Here’s a thought. We all agree that something does indeed need to be done about nuclear waste. Suppose somebody “does something”, what is it going to be? Well, it’s going to be starting to implement this “plan”, since, as the priority option, it is obviously the thing to pick if anything is to be done.

But options remain open. In case a detractor says “why on earth are you doing this? It makes no sense“, the Energy Minister can reply “only when we are confident, etc, etc, the Government remains open to any alternative proposals, etc.

And when a sufficient amount of money has been spent, someone can say “oh look, we’ve got half a MOX plant! Well, better get on and finish it, then! Don’t like to waste money…..

Maybe it’s just the time of year. I haven’t hung my Christmas lights either. Or maybe the UK government has been reading its seasonal literature and the nuclear contractors hired a lobbyist name of Bob Cratchit.

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