The United States has 104 nuclear power plants, and six more are planned " enough to produce 3,000 tons of waste per year, all of which would be stored at Yucca Mountain if an alternative isn't found.
Instead of storing the nation's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain (Plan A), or leaving waste where it is, as Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid has proposed (Plan B), we should instead reprocess nuclear waste (Plan C). This plan would reduce waste, storage requirements and transportation risks, thereby eliminating the need for Yucca Mountain. Furthermore, two strategically placed regional reprocessing centers " one for the West coast and the other for the East coast " make the country's nuclear waste terrorist-proof.
Plan A seems popular with everyone but Nevadans. Why? Yucca Mountain is almost ready, more resistant to theft by nuclear terrorists, and inexpensive; however, those reasons are insufficient. An accident at the storage facility could hurt the state's economy. Secondly, one should consider the transportation risks involved when a significant amount of nuclear waste is moving on our nation's roads. Thirdly, waste has to be stored for at least 10,000 years because of uranium's extensive half-life.
Sen. Reid's Plan B to leave waste at its current storage locations seems a viable alternative to keep nuclear waste out of Nevada, but it leaves the U.S. vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Leaving waste currently stored near major cities would be cheaper than shipping or reprocessing but poses huge security risks.
Plan C (reprocessing) might be the most efficient, intelligent and best way to handle nuclear waste in the U.S. Using electro-metallurgical reprocessing, this plan reuses the uranium and elements that can be put into mixed oxide fuel. Reprocessing burns very long-lived waste products in a fast burner reactor, reducing the duration of storage to 300 years and waste volume by 95 percent. Most importantly, the residual waste cannot be made into a nuclear bomb and is substantially cooler than non-reprocessed waste. It also emits less radiation than the wastes planned for Yucca Mountain.
Reprocessing still requires transportation but total miles are massively reduced with just two regional centers. Critics say reprocessing is too expensive, but their argument is based on old data for uranium costs and outdated reprocessing technology. While the plan may be more expensive initially, storing nuclear waste for 300 years instead of 10,000 years is less expensive in the long run.
Plan C, however, doesn't come without its own byproduct. Reprocessing creates low weapons grade plutonium. Fortunately, the plutonium could immediately be put into new fuel rods and sent back to thermal plants to create new electricity. The remaining long-lived wastes would be incinerated in a fast burner reactor. To facilitate the plan, we need to build one or two sites, each with three separate structures: one to reprocess, one to fabricate new fuel rods, and a fast burner reactor to burn up the long-lived elements so the remains have a shorter half life of 30 years.
To head off Yucca Mountain, Nevada should push Plan C while simultaneously pointing out the technical flaws in Plan A. It is in the best interest of Nevada and the country to end the stalemate on Yucca Mountain and create new nuclear plants to meet increasing demand for electricity, which is predicted by the DOE to increase 30 percent by 2030. Nuclear plants have the side benefit of adding zero greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, gases that contribute to pollution and global warming.
While nuclear waste reprocessing may not be the perfect solution, it is certainly the most intelligent approach for Nevada.
- John Scire is an Adjunct Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Nevada, Reno. His editorial assistant, Ricardo Lopez, a journalism student in the Honors Program at UNR, assisted with research for this column. To read more about nuclear waste reprocessing, visit the Web site www.sciam.com and type in "nuclear option" in the search box.