Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fun with energy generation statistics

The prior post made me want to verify trends in energy generation and prices, so I took a a glance at the resources available over at the Energy Information Administration. Two interesting pieces of data they have available are average consumer electricity costs and total installed capacity by source. I graphed these trends for 1990-2009 (the range data was available for).

Two trends are apparent - first, nearly all the new capacity installed in the last decade has been natural gas. Likewise, one notices a precipitous rise in electricity costs nearly around the same time (e.g., around 2003). Obviously, this would seem to indicate two things - first, supply and demand is alive and well in energy production markets (i.e., utilities have rushed to capture rising energy prices by quickly installing natural gas capacity, which can be rolled out relatively fast and with low up-front cost). Second, claims of "cheap natural gas" have yet to reflect themselves in retail electricity prices. Perhaps this trend will only bear out in more recent years (2009-2011), however the idea that electricity prices will dramatically lower seems to strain belief, particularly given global trends. In this sense, the business case for nuclear seems it will only become easier to make, cheap natural gas or no.

A second piece of data is an overall analysis of historical electricity prices, courtesy of the Edison Electric Institute (thanks to Alan for locating this for me). This data, going back to 1930, analyzes retail electric prices normalized to the consumer price index (CPI), a common measure of inflation; the historical numbers in this case were normalized to 2005 prices.

Notice what happens with electricity prices in real dollars - they slowly declined until around 1970 (i.e., the oil crisis), where they continued to climb, although more slowly in the 80's (even declining slightly in the 90's). One problem with this data of course is that it stops around 2005 - right around when electricity prices began to rise precipitously once more.

Finally, let's look at the last piece of the puzzle, which ultimately has determined decisions on whether to expand capacity: electricity demand. I plotted out EIA data for residential electricity sales versus electric price:

Demand is relatively flat from 1990-1992 and begins to take off afterwards (i.e., corresponding to economic growth) and then plateaus again around 2004 (recession). Unfortunately, data was not available prior to 1990, but a similar trend in flat-lining demand is what occurred during the 1980's, which is ultimately (in addition to the changing regulatory environment) which brought nuclear expansion (along with most other electric capacity expansion) to a grinding halt. As demand began to pick back up during the 1990's, the gap was filled almost entirely by new natural gas (and, incidentally, electricity prices came along for the ride.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Is deregulation really the problem for new nuclear?

John Rowe, CEO of Exelon Energy (operator of one of the largest nuclear fleets in the U.S.), is not exactly shy with his thoughts on the economics of new nuclear.

In an August meeting of the American Nuclear Society Utility Working Conference, Rowe gave a hard-edged presentation titled, "My Last Nuclear Speech" in which he laid out his position that nuclear "is a business, not a religion," and predicted that lower natural gas prices would persist for the next 10-20 years, making investment in new nuclear energy uneconomic. To be clear, Rowe is not an anti-nuke (at least not by ideology); it would be an awfully hard fence to straddle were he, given that Exelon's portfolio consists of 93% nuclear.

Rowe, like Vizzini, believes new nuclear plants in merchant
utility markets are "inconceivable."
Depending on your point of view (and perhaps, your political leanings), Rowe is either a hard-nosed energy economics realist or simply a rent-seeking opportunist hoping to cash in on the rush to natural gas. (In truth, there's probably merit to both cases, given Rowe's penchant for lobbying both the government and industry for outcomes such as a carbon tax and increased natural gas consumption which would increase the value of his current fleet.)

Recently, Rowe raised new hackles in criticizing the Calvert Cliffs expansion project in Maryland, describing the move to build a third nuclear unit in a deregulated electricity market as "almost inconceivable." The basis of his incredulity? Low natural gas prices coupled with a competitive market for electricity. (Unlike states with regulated utilities, where a public utilities board sets electricity prices, prices deregulated markets are controlled by the lowest-bidding providers on the spot market.) Rowe remarked,
"At today's [natural] gas prices, a new nuclear power plant is out of the money by a factor of two," Rowe said, echoing one of the main points of his speech. "It's not 20%, it's not something where you can go sharpen the pencil and play. It's economically wrong. Gas trumps it," he said
Fellow nuclear blogger Rod Adams took this as an indication of Rowe's hypocrisy, asking why he isn't immediately "selling off its existing nuclear plants and investing the proceeds in additional gas-fired generation." But this is a facile understanding of the situation - Rowe's position is not that the existing fleet is uneconomic - quite the opposite. A nuclear plant whose capital costs are already paid for can outbid natural gas - even "cheap" natural gas - every time, namely because the fuel costs of an established nuclear plant are incredibly low. For example, the EIA predicts the operation costs of a new nuclear plant entering service in 2016 to comprise roughly 10% of total electricity cost, compared to around 70% for natural gas. (All of this is roughly consistent with current estimates for electricity costs).

So where is the problem? Capital costs - especially the cost of money (i.e., the premium paid to investors to borrow money to finance new nuclear builds). These costs, by the above estimate, make up 80% of nuclear electricity costs. In other words, most of the cost for nuclear is up-front. Hence, the paradox of nuclear: expensive to build but incredibly cheap to operate, especially once the unit is paid for. Thus the reason CEOs like Rowe are loathe to part with their existing nuclear fleet to gamble on new gas capacity - established nuclear is a sure economic winner, even in deregulated ("merchant") utility markets.

Given this, why does Rowe seem to think nuclear is so "inconceivable" in a deregulated market compared to gas? Namely because of the same reasons it's hard to build nuclear in the first place - costs are front-loaded, and in a merchant market there's no guarantee of the rate of return. (Regulated markets, on the other hand, can both generally guarantee a price for electricity as well as allow for construction work in progress [CWIP] financing, allowing the utility to collect some of the financing costs up-front, thus saving ratepayers millions of dollars in the future by lowering the total amount financed). Natural gas doesn't face this handicap, although it faces a different gamble, in that future energy prices are heavily tied to the future costs of gas. (Given the low fuel cost of nuclear, on the other hand, even a doubling in the price of uranium would only produce a small uptick in the price of power - about 7%, less than a penny per kWh).

Thus, even though once the cost of the facility is paid-off nuclear can under-bid even historically low natural gas prices, the difficulty lies in recovering the cost of the investment. As a result, some nuclear advocates (such as Adams) point to this as a fundamental flaw in energy market liberalization, pointing out that deregulated markets drive a race for short-term profits over long-term planning. (Rod even goes so far as to characterize Rowe as a ruthless energy market villain counterpart to Mister Potter from It's a Wonderful Life).

[Note: My colleague Alan reminds me that the capital cost itself is irrelevant to the bidding itself; i.e., the bid is controlled by the marginal cost of production (e.g., fuel cost). Hence, even new nuclear can under-bid low-priced natural gas in the spot market. The issue is not the capacity for new nuclear to under-bid then, per se, but rather to do so while garnering a return capable of also paying back the existing capital costs.]

But is it really deregulated energy markets that are the problem for nuclear? Rod points to Électricité de France (who owns a 49% stake in the Calvert Cliffs project) as evidence of Rowe's shortsightedness. Yet there is a fundamental difference overlooked in this analysis between the two companies - the total market equity of Exelon is $13.16 billion, while that of EDF is €36.9 billion ($50.1 billion USD). In other words, EDF is over three times the size of Exelon; while the cost of one new nuclear unit (at around $4 billion) might very well be a case of "betting the farm" for Exelon (despite being one of the larger U.S. utilities), it is a much more easily handled investment for a giant like EDF.

There is often a caveat made to investors wishing to bet against obvious irrationality in the market - "Markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent." Here it would seem the same caveat applies to perhaps resolve our seeming contradiction. The problem is not necessarily that deregulated electricity markets hinder long-term planning, but that lack of sufficient capitalization (i.e., access to capital) makes it much more difficult for smaller utilities to engage in long-term economic planning than much larger firms like EDF.

Further, this again seems like a place where small modular reactors may yet tip the balance. Given that the business case for nuclear is driven by long-term stability in costs but hampered by high up-front investment costs, SMRs may well be able to provide for an opportunity for forward-looking utilities to compete even in deregulated markets. Given that the up-front investment is smaller for SMRs while the overall economics are largely unchanged, SMRs may offer the capacity for such utilities to incrementally enter merchant markets to compete with gas even at record-low prices, namely by allowing a smaller up-front investment to be recovered over the same time period.

Likewise, given the "modular" part of SMRs, utilities can more easily scale up their energy investments with nuclear, avoiding the economic catastrophe that befell many nuclear unit investors in the 1980's when energy demand unexpectedly plateaued. (Such a recent slowdown in growth of energy demand has likewise been a chief element in slower investment in new nuclear units domestically.)

Thus, a Chinese proverb seems appropriate here: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." Deregulated energy markets and historically low natural gas prices may by their nature provide a challenge to new nuclear - but certainly not an insurmountable one. The key to success for new nuclear will be in its ability to adapt, both through new technologies like SMRs which allow for more scaleable development in competitive energy markets and perhaps through innovative partnerships between utilities which allow for more efficient financing of large builds without the "bet the farm" risk presented to less capitalized firms.

Thus the new rule for new nuclear: adapt or die. The alternative is to simply curse the darkness.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Nuclear and the moral case for energy development

Recently, the Dalai Lama spoke out in favor of the peaceful use of nuclear energy to help bridge the gap between the developed world and the world's poorest, causing quite a stir, particularly among nuclear supporters. In his own words, he said
There is still many developing countries with a huge gap between rich and poor…millions of people’s lives remain under the poverty level and we have to think about these people
I'm arriving somewhat late to the party on this one, coming off the heels of giving five talks at the recent American Nuclear Society conference (incidentally, several of which pertained to nonproliferation education and research). However, there was a point that particularly resonated, similar to what Rod Adams recently touched on and in the theme of the Dalai Lama's comments: specifically, the moral case to be made for energy development. In this respect, I am reminded of the The Obligation of the Engineer, specifically:
Since the stone age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.
Engineers have made usable nature's vast resources of material and energy for humanity's benefit.
As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth's precious wealth. 
When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good.
Many of us who came into the nuclear profession did so out of awareness of the enormous potential nuclear energy holds, particularly in creating a world of energy abundance. In particular, balancing the dual concern of how to continue our current standard of living against pressing environmental concerns (despite my otherwise lack of granola / hippie cache) is part of what drove me into the field of nuclear engineering. Fundamentally, what motivates many in this regard is thus nuclear's capacity to help bridge the gap in what the late resource economist Julian Simon described as the greatest scourge: energy poverty.

Consider for a moment all of the conveniences that afford those of us in the developed world to call ourselves prosperous: homes which are kept comfortable and lit at night, sophisticated medical technology, the capacity to grow, transport, and maintain fresh food over long distances - each of these critically depends upon abundant access to energy. Take away the energy wealth of the developed world and suddenly much of this capacity is lost.

In this vein, nuclear energy is unique in several respects, but most remarkable in the sheer energy density. Fossil fuels (like coal and natural gas) exploit the breaking of chemical carbon bonds to produce energy, which until the discovery of nuclear fission was the most energy-dense process known around. Indeed, this density along with portability is still what makes fossil sources some of the most economical and attractive forms of energy. Nuclear fission takes this to a new dimension, exploiting the fundamental forces of nature (e.g., the strong force which binds the nucleus itself) to harness orders of magnitude greater amounts of energy, without the harmful byproducts of combustion of organic materials, some from combustion itself (carbon dioxide) and some which are inherent to the source (lead, mercury, and sulfur dioxide - i.e., the precursor to acid rain).

Underlying the Dalai Lama's endorsement of nuclear energy development is something nuclear professionals and advocates are keenly aware of: despite the attractiveness of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, they are by nature diffuse and subject to the whims of nature. While there are other professionals (as adamantly  feverant about the idea of energy abundance as any nuclear advocate) who strive to soften the issue of the inherent instability of these sources through technologies such as energy storage, none of this gets around the fact that the density of renewable sources is critically constrained by nature, inherently limiting their ability to provide the level of power of sources such as nuclear without taking enormous amounts of land and resources out of other productive uses.

Relative abundance of elements of earth (Source: Wikipedia)
Nuclear, in particular with the development of new technologies such as grid-appropriate small modular reactors (SMRs) as well as alternative fuel cycles like throrium (yet more abundant in nature than uranium, itself more abundant on earth than silver, and both more abundant than the "rare earth" metals essential for components of wind and solar energy systems) thus has the capacity to provide for energy abundance in the developing world without the rather painful environmental trade-offs developing nations such as China have been forced to make, with their heavy reliance on coal.

Does this mean nuclear is a free lunch? Of course not - something which both the Dalai Lama and I freely acknowledge. Spent fuel is still an issue - although as we have seen, a political challenge rather than a technical one. (Looking beyond, the waste problem is one hardly exclusive to nuclear, either.) And indeed, the Dalai Lama is right to emphasize the need to minimize risks to public safety, something which nuclear professionals are acutely aware of (although, as is historically the case with technology, something technical managers are sometimes still catching up to). But what makes the case for nuclear is its capacity to balance these risks against the real and ever-present harms of other sources (especially those from coal, which is responsible for far more deaths per unit energy) against other factors like availability and economics.

Finally, there is of course the issue of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, something the Dalai Lama has long campaigned against (likewise an area I myself specialized in during my graduate studies). Yet as I have pointed out before, nuclear development need not come with the capacity for weapons (and in fact, the broader use of peaceful uses may yet prove to be antagonistic to weapons, both in consuming the feedstock as well as cementing economic benefits not readily yielded for a decision to proliferate).

Ultimately, there is fundamentally a humanist case to be made for expanded energy development in the developed world, in order to enable all of humanity to enjoy the benefits of energy abundance. Nuclear is and will continue to play a fundamental part in this.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Effective and ineffective advocacy

Recently, there's been a push among supporters of nuclear energy to try and promote nuclear energy-related petitions in the White House's recent propaganda stunt online citizen petition initiative, "We the People". Some of these petition topics included advocacy of specific nuclear prototype projects (such as the integral fast reactor [IFR], liquid fluoride thorium reactor [LFTR], and others), others advocacy for nuclear energy education, and so forth.

Rather cynically, the White House decided to raise the signature petition threshold from 5,000 to 25,000 signatures in 30 days. Even still, a few petitions - particularly those related to marijuana and general drug-policy reform, managed to squeak through, along with others tied to topics such as the "Fair Tax" plan and the topic of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Taking a look at the official White House responses - released on a Friday (in other words, "trash day" in media parlance), one can tell that they simply wanted these topics to just go away. The White House takes these kinds of matters no more seriously than a local Congressional representative takes unsolicited letters from individuals: a boilerplate response that simply says, "Thanks, but we still disagree. Now please go away." Pretty clear and convincing evidence what kind of Potemkin Village propaganda fronts initiatives like these are - and a distraction from real advocacy efforts.

Contrast this with actions such as that organized by Meredith Angwin in support of the beleaguered Vermont Yankee nuclear facility. In addition to her blog, "Yes Vermont Yankee," she recently organized a pro-VY rally as a counter to some of the recent anti-VY rallies going on. Originally she expected a turnout of about 25 - and through the power of social media, managed to get over double that (60 total).

This is what effective advocacy looks like. Going out and talking to people - family, friends, and neighbors. Directly engaging with peoples' concerns, many of which are legitimate at their root (in the sense that health, safety, and economics are all legitimate concerns). And they're concerns we have answers for - especially those of us who are educated nuclear professionals.

Some of the most effective actions we can take are simply to educate people - not even evangelizing, but reaching out to organizations like schools, scouting groups, and so on. (Some of the most enjoyable teaching moments I've had so far involve teaching basic nuclear concepts to scouting groups.) One of the chief motivators behind the fear of nuclear energy and radiation is the fact that these issues are poorly understood - the more ordinary mundane they become, the less opportunity there is for the professional scaremongering class to stir up boogeymen.

It isn't always easy - people will often get intimidated when I tell them I'm a nuclear engineer. But the most common way I've found to deflect that and put people at ease is this - I tell them, "Really, it's just a very sophisticated way of boiling water to make electricity." And, bland as that sounds, that really is the root of nuclear energy - controlled nuclear fission which produces heat, which in turn boils steam and turns turbines. That's it.

Getting people to understand this, and the fact that radiation is all around them in nature, are key to allowing the public to make informed decisions on energy, rather than being emotionally manipulated by ignorance and hype.

Online petitions run for the cynical political benefit of their sponsors just won't do this. At best, they are simply used at the discretion of their political puppetmasters, and at worst fruitless efforts like these rob advocates of time better spent on more effective education and outreach efforts.

11/8/2011: To clarify a bit, following a conversation with the creator of the LFTR petition - I'm against petitions as a means of impacting governmental policy (which is next to useless). Petitions as a medium for education - which I still think is relatively limited by the medium itself - is still fundamentally the right idea, in that the goal is to begin a conversation. (Unfortunately, the LFTR petition recently expired, per the 30-day rule of the White House petition system, or I'd have otherwise provided a link.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The GOP debate: Don't bet on Yucca Mountain

The Obama administration's controversial decision to zero-fund (and effectively cancel) the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository - in violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act - was generally regarded as a decision which would only be reversed by a subsequent administration. (One can argue about whether the 1987 amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act mandating Yucca mountain was a good or fair idea, but it still is the law, bad law as it may be.)
Magic 8-ball

So, how do the prospects for that look? Judging by last night's Republican debate in Las Vegas: outlook not so good.

Each of the candidates generally opposed the repository, or at the very least, refused to indicate a willingness to go against the Obama administration's policy. Newt Gingrich appeared to give a qualified endorsement, nodding that the scientific community had generally found the site to be one of the most suitable to the task, while acknowledging strong local opposition.

Rep. Ron Paul (who I will admit to personally being a fan of), put it this way:
 I approach it from a state’s rights position. What right does 49 states have to punish one state and say, “We’re going to put our garbage in your state”? I think that’s wrong.
Certainly, there's something to be said for the federalist approach, particularly if we're looking for lasting solutions. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney appeared to echo the sentiments of the Blue Ribbon Commission, indicating he'd prefer a competitive market-based bidding process by states to host a potential repository contingent upon suitable geology.

CNN has the full debate transcript up, so you can judge for yourself.

But as to the final fate of Yucca Mountain, including a reversal of fortune by a future administration? Don't bet on it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Civilian nuclear energy programs as a "fig leaf" for proliferation: Does it matter?

The Washington Post today featured an interesting article detailing many of the difficulties and setbacks encountered by Iran's enrichment program, post-Stuxnet. In part what it illustrates is the technical difficulty of actually attempting to engineer a proliferation attempt, even given access to facilities and technical know-how.

Iran has been plagued by problems, owing chiefly due to the fact that separating isotopes which vary only slightly in atomic weight (U-235 versus U-238) is an extremely challenging process from a technical perspective. Centrifuges accomplish this task by spinning tubes of uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a green gel which becomes an extremely corrosive gas when heated; the heavier U-238 is pushed further outward down the tube, allowing for the lighter U-235 to be "skimmed" off. This process must be repeated hundreds of times (i.e., through "cascades" of connected centrifuges) in order to separate out useful quantities of U-235. Centrifuges must be precision-engineered and capable of spinning at incredible speeds - hundreds of meters per second, and capable of tolerating extreme mechanical stress. As the above article points out, this is not an easy task, especially with aging equipment and sub-standard materials.

A key take-away lesson here should be that even with the backing of a sovereign state and scientists with the technical know-how, proliferation is not easy. (Given enough time and resources, it is clearly not impossible - but both of these factors tend to be the chief constraints of any proliferation attempt.)

One issue in the reporter's choice of language jumps out, however:
Although Iran continues to stockpile enriched uranium in defiance of U.N. resolutions, two new reports portray the country’s nuclear program as riddled with problems as scientists struggle to keep older equipment working.
Here's the thing - the problem is not Iran enriching uranium per se. So-called "enriched" uranium can be anywhere from 1-99% U-235, the "fissile" species of uranium which exists in only trace quantities (less than a percent) in nature. Yet only uranium which has been enriched to high levels of U-235 - at least 20% (classified as "highly enriched uranium" or HEU), and generally for weapons on the order of 90% - is considered actually suitable for a weapon. Most civilian reactors use uranium enriched between 2-6% ("low enriched uranium" - LEU) - itself useless for a uranium-based explosive device.

Nowhere in the article is it stated whether Iran has actually produced HEU; to date, no evidence has been presented that they in fact have gone up to this level. Does this mean that I am naive enough to believe Iran has only benevolent intentions with their program? Of course not. But it's also incredibly sloppy journalism to imply that uranium enrichment on its own is a nefarious project; enrichment to low levels is a mundane part of the civilian fuel cycle. Much like any technology, enrichment can be used for good or evil; but the simple act of uranium enrichment on its own does not itself constitute a grave situation. Incidentally, a similar form of collective panic takes hold with particular concern trolls (who shall remain nameless) any time a new enrichment technology - such as laser-based enrichment (e.g., SILEX) is introduced. 

A fig leaf
This leads into the broader question which is often posed as a challenge to nuclear energy: are civilian programs used as a cover for weapons applications? Fundamentally, a point my colleague Alan raised which remains true is that weapons are a consequence of a regime that decides to pursue weapons. There are numerous historical examples of regimes which have either developed only an anemic civilian nuclear power capacity and weapons (e.g., Pakistan, Israel) or none at all (North Korea). In other words, the decision to proliferate does not seem to historically spring from the development of a civilian fuel cycle - in fact, research by my former adviser Dr. Man-Sung Yim shows that increasing development of total civilian nuclear power capacity has a negative correlation with historical decisions to proliferate. There are several possible explanations for such a phenomenon, but chief among them may be the fact that countries which begin to enjoy the benefits of civilian power programs do not wish to see these economic benefits jeopardized by proliferation decisions.

To emphasize: none of this implies that we should not have reasonable safeguards against proliferation, such as measures the IAEA undertakes with host states and operators, such as inventory tracking and regular inspections of facilities. But it does call into question the larger logic of non-proliferation as objection to nuclear energy systems at large. Assuming that civilian programs are used as a cover for military applications - as is suspected in the case of Iran, for example - what exactly should this imply? One must ask - do opponents of nuclear energy demand that countries who have shown neither the propensity nor desire to proliferate also forfeit their ambitions for nuclear energy programs as a token symbolic gesture?

As history has shown, even assuming such programs are used as a "fig leaf" for proliferation activities, civilian programs are neither necessary to proliferation nor are they even necessarily promoters of such (in fact, the opposite claim can be supported). Can civilian fuel cycles be co-opted for military use? Yes, of course - the same enrichment facility used to produce LEU for fuel can easily be repurposed to produce HEU for weapons. Yet in this sense, civilian nuclear energy systems are no more a "promoter" of proliferation any more than automobile manufacturers are a "promoter" of vehicular homocide. The argument simply doesn't hold up.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Follow-up: Is spent fuel repository space truly "scarce?"

An anonymous commenter* left a response this evening to my most recent post criticizing the BRC's chief reliance on interim storage as a waste management solution. [*While it is generally my policy to be quite liberal with anonymous commenting (and I would never demand anyone disclose their real identity without so choosing), it is perhaps helpful for responding to anonymous comments to provide some kind of pseudonym or handle. As it is, this is simply a personal preference, no more.]

Ordinarily, I would simply respond in the thread, however the commenter raised several intelligent and interesting points which are worth responding to more broadly.

Taking it piece-by-piece:
The BRC report actually does recommend a decision framework for adopting advanced future fuel cycle technologies (including reprocessing). The report says that the federal government should sponsor RD&D to develop and demonstrate these technologies, but that the federal government (and the federal corporation recommended by the BRC) should not build or operate such infrastructure. So any future closing of the fuel cycle would involve decisions made by the private sector, based upon economics of direct disposal versus recycle. There it is.
Yes, it is true the report states just that. However, as I pointed out previously, the BRC report does not address any of the incentive structure built into the current waste fee, which charges based upon electricity demand rather than final impact upon the repository. By the current policy, private operators have no incentive to reprocess until the value of spent fuel exceeds the direct cost of reprocessing in addition to fees already paid for disposal. (There is likewise the issue that the fuel is held in title by the federal government).

In this sense then, it is not per current law the province of the private market to solve. This is at the root of the reason that I point out the flawed incentive structure, however - right now, the current policy of pay-as-you-produce, per unit electricity fundamentally short-circuits decisions by the private market by forcing them to pay a fixed cost for disposal no matter what. A revised policy which rested on A) Payment at time of disposal, and B) Fees adjusted to repository-impacting factors such as volume and heat would allow for this kind of private decision-making process to take place.

In other words, right now any market for private action on spent fuel is essentially a stacked deck, which the BRC recommendations do little to address.

Further, because without further changes to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, spent fuel is the legal responsibility of the federal government, disclaiming technological alternatives to direct disposal without modifying the legal or fee-structure process is itself a commitment to direct disposal, absent events which entail spent fuel having a commercial value above and beyond that which has already been paid over to the federal government. Again, even a policy which delays these payments until spent fuel is handed over for final disposal would help to correct this issue.

As of now, given the fact that the federal government assumes a monopoly over spent fuel, it's a bit of a mulligan to argue that the private market serves as the decision framework for spent fuel treatment alternatives.
This post states that "The overall capacity of a geologic repository is controlled chiefly by temperature" which is not really correct; the overall capacity of a repository is determined primarily by the repository's area. The post presumes that repository area will remain a scarce resource, making closing the fuel cycle necessary to use limited repository area efficiently. This is a potentially completely incorrect assumption. What is the area of bedded salt in the Permean basin that stretches from Texas to Louisiana to Kansas? What is the area of the 70% of the continental U.S. which has crystalline basement rock within 2 kilometers of the surface suitable for deep boreholes? How many ridges of volcanic tuff are there at the Nevada Test Site that have ground water over 1000 feet below the surface? How much granite, how much clay does the U.S. have?
Let's break this into two issues. Assuming fixed physical design (i.e., footprint), temperature is a limiting factor. This is not really a matter of dispute. The temperature of the drift wall and the rock between drifts is what controls the physical emplacement of waste.

Yes, one can always dig a bigger hole - or for that matter, look into alternatives such as vertical emplacement rather than the current model for horizontal emplacement. And indeed, by this logic, we conceivably aren't restricted in terms of available repository space - which is why I took care to point out that this is a regulatory limit in the context of Yucca Mountain (based upon the design itself) rather than a strictly technical one. However, the political feasibility of this approach of indefinite expansion has always been in doubt (difficulties in opening one limited-scale geologic repository notwithstanding). I am extremely pessimistic that one can simply get away with indefinite expansion of capacity at a single site, despite what is easily sufficient physical capacity to do so.

Moving on to the broader point regarding available alternative disposal sites, this is actually a point I've been wanting to address in a future follow-up about geologic disposal alternatives (i.e., alternatives to the Yucca Mountain geology). Indeed, the Permian basin salt dome formation is quite large, and was the subject of the aforementioned "Project Salt Vault," which originally tested the feasibility of salt-dome formations. (Likewise, WIPP is also on the border of this same formation).

Deaf Smith county, Texas, one of the five original sites nominated for a permanent geologic repository, was also located in the Permian basin geology, which indeed is quite expansive, with many locations isolated from population centers. Other locations considered, such as Hanford feature granite in the saturated zone. The list goes on.

So, are we limited in terms of available site selection for geologic repositories? Physically, no - nor was this the problem to begin with. However, I would argue on the basis of history that we are greatly constrained politically in opening such a repository. While I welcome the BRC report's emphasis upon a consent-based process for repository siting, I am pessimistic that the NIMBY politics which mired down a site selection process originally would not make opening or expanding future sites another difficult and time-consuming process. I would thus argue that repository space thus is at a premium, not for want of accommodating geology but for lack of political will, something which appears to evolve only on the same timescales as geology itself. (Again, somewhere I'd be happy to be proven wrong.)

On the topic of boreholes - this is one area where the BRC report appeared to favor further investigation - however the one remark I can provide here is that deep borehole disposal is relatively expensive - then again, so are geologic repositories. Cost estimates seem to vary wildly based upon the assessment, with some studies indicating an array of 700 boreholes to dispose of 70,000 MTHM of waste would cost about $14 billion. Looking back to a study performed by a former colleague, it would appear that their estimate for 95 boreholes (for 10,000 cubic meters of storage, or about the equivalent of 36,000 MT of SNF) would be about $3.26 billion - still less than a tenth of the estimated cost of Yucca Mountain and about a quarter of the estimated cost of a similar geologic repository in Sweden. (Note that this study is for intermediate-depth boreholes for greater-than-class-C waste; actual requirements for intact spent fuel may vary.)
In this sense then, issues of future retrievability and ultimate technical feasibility aside, deep borehole disposal may indeed be the way to go. This begs the question (to which I have no immediate answer) why the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act and subsequent amendments were thus so committed to the strategy of centralized geologic repositories, as opposed to decentralized disposal in deep boreholes.
Will the private sector ever want to invest in building reprocessing infrastructure that could become uneconomic overnight as soon as a few square miles of new repository space are opened up?
Historically, this factor didn't seem to stop investments at West Valley and Barnwell. While West Valley was ultimately ill-fated due to initial design issues and later rendered retroactively uneconomical by changing regulations, Barnwell was clearly an attempt by the private sector to directly address spent fuel reprocessing. One can dispute whether the economics ever favored the viability of Barnwell, however clearly the private sector has been willing in the past to take on some of this infrastructure.
Further, this assumes a relative ease in developing repository capacity which again, may not be technically constrained, but certainly has yet to be demonstrated in terms of political feasibility.
If the decision to recycle spent fuel is left to the private sector, as the BRC recommends, probably the only reason any significant amount of spent fuel will get recycled in the future is because new reactor technologies will be commercialized where fissile recovered from old spent fuel will be less expensive than fissile from natural uranium. Google "denatured molten salt reactor" for a plausible example.
If the BRC recommendations are followed with no further amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (specifically with regard to the fee structure), this is likely true. And certainly, there are plenty of examples of reactor concepts which make use of recovered fissile materials, ranging from the integral fast reactor (a perennial favorite of Barry Brook over at Brave New Climate) to the EM2 small modular reactor design being proposed by General Atomics.

However, once again I believe my criticism here is still salient - how will the chain of custody of spent fuel adapt to allow for private alternatives to direct disposal? Will the federal government rebate funds for fuel diverted for recovery? Will an alternative fee be assessed for waste forms which are either more compact or cooler (thus having a lower marginal impact on the repository capacity?) These are questions which are left unanswered, ones which I believe would have significant consequences for private incentives for nuclear waste management (including recovery for reactors).

Given my own personal political preferences, I would prefer to see a system in which the private market handled spent fuel and the federal government only served in the role of steward of geologic disposal sites. However, in my opinion this requires a more fundamental re-working of the incentives built in to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which has yet to be proposed by the BRC.

Overall, several good and provocative points raised by the commenter - I appreciate their taking the time to present such a thought-out response, and hope this post serves to further the discussion.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dissecting the BRC report, Part II: Where interim storage falls short

Perhaps the worst that could be said for the BRC report is in its overall lack of ambition. In particular, the BRC declined to comment on the viability of Yucca Mountain as a geologic repository, noting:

We take no position on the Administration’s request to withdraw the license application. We simply note that regardless what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount that can be legally emplaced at this site until a second repository is in operation. So under current law, the United States will need to find a new disposal site even if Yucca Mountain goes forward. We believe the approach set forth here provides the best strategy for assuring continued progress, regardless of the fate of Yucca Mountain.
Unfortunately, combined with the Commission's lack of interest in endorsing alternative fuel cycle strategies such as partial or full recycling of long-lived actinides (such as the remaining uranium, plutonium, and minor actinide species which make up the bulk of spent fuel by mass), this leaves little in the way of any actual immediate solutions for spent fuel management. Instead, as I noted prior, what this simply amounts to is turning back the clock on the process - wiser, but nonetheless no further along.

Projected spent nuclear fuel discharges (courtesy of OCRWM)

The commission is of course correct that at the current rate, even were Yucca Mountain to open tomorrow, the nation would soon require a second repository, given the regulatory capacity (not the technical capacity) of the site. What thus  can be said in the commission's defense is that many of its recommendations would apply equally to any future repository required, even assuming Yucca Mountain were to open.

Estimated "wet storage" capacity at reactors, per the NRC. 
Indeed, spent fuel storage at reactors is a growing problem, made worse by the stalemate over Yucca Mountain. Coloring much of the report are concerns over the events at Fukushima, most especially in terms of managing spent fuel pools which are quickly reaching capacity.

Thus, concerns over waste management have begun to intersect with safety concerns, leading to an increase push for "dry storage" of older fuel. The safety concern is somewhat ill-placed, given that only older fuel (generally on the order of 5-10 years following final discharge) can be safely placed in dry storage (as the decay heat of such fuel is low enough to allow for air cooling). The fuel bundles which can be thus moved out of "wet storage" are thus not those at risk of damage in the event of a loss of coolant in the spent fuel pool; rather, any move to remove these bundles has more to do with lowering the total amount of radioactivity in the pool (as well as increasing safety margins in the pool) as well as making room for newer fuel being ejected from the core.

Yet dry storage is neither a substitute for wet storage ("younger", hotter fuel can't go into dry storage) nor a substitute for permanent disposal (dry storage casks, while being suitable for storage on the order of decades or more, is not designed to permanently isolate spent fuel from the environment and is subject to environmental attack).

However, all of this assumes no change from the once-through cycle, where only a fraction of the usable uranium is fissioned and the entire fuel assembly is thrown away with no further recovery of usable materials.

"Buying time" with interim storage

This is perhaps the most glaring flaw in the Commission's report; despite soliciting the testimony of numerous fuel cycle experts (and even in some cases, nuclear energy opponents), the capstone of their recommendations - centralized interim storage - amounts to a rather sophisticated way of simply buying time. In evaluating each of the technical solutions to nuclear waste management, the Commission declined to endorse any, concluding that interim storage leading to some form of geologic disposal is ultimately necessary:
We concluded that while new reactor and fuel cycle technologies may hold promise for achieving substantial benefits in terms of broadly held safety, economic, environmental, and energy security goals and therefore merit continued public and private R&D investment, no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments—including advances in reprocess and recycle technologies—have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenge this nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer. Put another way, we do not believe that today’s recycle technologies or new technology developments in the next three to four decades will change the underlying need for an integrated strategy that combines safe, interim storage of SNF with expeditious progress toward siting and licensing a permanent disposal facility or facilities. This is particularly true of defense HLW and some forms of government-owned spent fuel that can and should be prioritized for direct disposal at an appropriate repository.
(Emphasis added).

A resonant theme throughout the report is the idea of "keeping one's options open" - in other words, avoiding any irreversible commitment to one technological choice, be it direct disposal or reprocessing. Hence one finds the conclusion for interim storage - a solution which is by its nature temporary. A key problem here however is that temporary solutions, while affording flexibility down the line, are also solutions which leave the issue still unresolved - the very problem which forced this crisis to begin with.

In fairness, the Commission found numerous technical and economic advantages to centralized interim storage, including reducing overall costs for security (especially compared to spent fuel stored at reactors which have been shutdown); the savings in comparison to on-site storage each reactor would make such a site largely self-financing, particularly given the cost of "orphaned" fuel at shutdown reactors. Additionally, centralized storage may afford certain new technical capacities such as mixing spent fuel assemblies in disposal packages in order to "even out" thermal loading in the repository. Finally, an interim storage site could easily be used as a staging area for both reprocessing or as a location to coordinate  final geologic disposal of assemblies.

So where exactly is the problem? The problem is in that this is it. Outside of recommendations for the process of repository siting, this is where the endorsements of technical solutions for nuclear waste management by the Commission end. Hence, the problem. One wonders why it took an entire commission of experts over a year to come to a set of solutions that, while helpful, have been already proposed by nuclear experts (including myself) for any number of years now.

To their credit, the Commission at least acknowledges the connection between interim storage and a credible process for establishing a repository, noting that the two activities cannot simply be carried out in isolation (particularly lest the centralized interim storage site be seen as a de facto permanent site).
Not that Deus Ex...

Yet much of their conclusion, and in particular their reluctance to endorse any of the suite of technological solutions for waste, implies waiting for some form of transformational technology whose technical and economic benefits solve their problem for them. Unfortunately, this is what folks in literature like to refer to as a "Deus Ex Machina" - in other words, a contrivance in which a divine entity swoops in and saves the hero from an otherwise insolvable crisis.

Overlooking incentives

One rather glaring omission in the Commisssion's report is an evaluation of the economic incentives "baked in" to current nuclear waste management policy. As of now, nuclear operators pay a $0.001/kWh fee to the federal government for each unit of electricity produced. While fine in theory (a "polluter pays" arrangement is certainly a forward-thinking way of handling such issues), this overlooks several perverse incentives such a policy produces by using a flat fee arrangement.

First is the linkage between the spent fuel and repository capacity. The overall capacity of a geologic repository is controlled chiefly by temperature - in other words, by the heat being produced by spent fuel rods. This in turn is linked to content of the rods - over the short term (i.e., the first 100 years following emplacement), the primary heat generators are radioactive cesium and strontium, each with half-lives of about thirty years. Thus, after about 100 years, the inventory of these isotopes (and subsequent heat) has decayed to roughly one-tenth of the original content. Over the extreme long-term (i.e., thousands of years), the heat capacity of the repository is controlled by long-lived actinides, specifically plutonium and americium. 

Were these species removed, technical studies have shown that the capacity of the repository could be increased ten to a hundred-fold in the same physical footprint, thereby eliminating the need for additional repositories. Thus, reprocessing spent fuel plays a critical role in such a planning process.

Yet the current fee structure does not charge based on the relative heat content of fuel (or, similarly, volume and total activity). There is thus no built-in incentive for operators to thus seek out ways to minimize these quantities - either through extended on-site storage (i.e., allowing time to do some of the work for them before shipping off waste for disposal) or reprocessing.

Additionally, because the fees are paid as power is generated, rather than when waste is disposed, the cost of disposal has already been "paid for" - and very few utilities (private or public) are so public-spirited as to pay twice for the privilege of waste management (such as paying for the cost of reprocessing fuel).

While uranium and plutonium can be recovered for re-use in spent fuel, reprocessing is expensive compared to mining and enriching new uranium from the ground; estimates show that the cost of raw uranium ore would have to rise appreciably - as much as ten times the current price - to make reprocessing competitive with mining an enriching new uranium. This of course frequently used as an argument by the opponents of reprocessing, but what this fails to account for is the cost of disposal; in particular, it is assumed the cost of disposing of waste is fixed. Yet this assumes after one repository fills, the next will be equally as inexpensive to locate and construct - a rather tenuous assumption. (Additionally, this line of argument neglects the consideration that fuel composes a tiny 10% of electricity costs for nuclear; thus, additional cost premiums for reprocessing are in essence a drop in the bucket.)

An alternative would be a pricing strategy which takes scarcity into account, which charges on the basis of total heat content (and potentially volume and activity) rather than in terms of electricity produced alone. Likewise, charging said fee at the time of disposal rather than immediately would encourage alternative solutions, from reprocessing to interim storage. (The issue of "stranded costs" could easily be handled as reactor decommissioning costs are now, where utilities are required to set aside funds during the operating life of the reactor to pay for its decommissioning and final disposal).

Missing the connection: nonproliferation

An additional point of emphasis in the BRC report is in the connection between the fuel cycle (specifically, waste management) and nonproliferation concerns. Nonproliferation has been (rightly or wrongly) at the fore of nuclear waste management decisions, from President Ford's temporary moratorium on domestic reprocessing, followed by President Carter's permanent shutdown, premised explicitly on nonproliferation concerns.

The BRC report correctly recognizes the linkage between waste management and nonproliferation, in particular the need for multilateral fuel cycle strategies that obviate the need for the spread of sensitive fuel cycle facilities (such as those for enrichment and reprocessing). While the topic of nonproliferation and the fuel cycle easily warrants its own post, in general a U.S. policy of fuel "leasing" (where fuel is enriched and manufactured here, leased to foreign reactors, and returned to the United States for final disposition) can be a vital tool in promoting a more proliferation-resistent fuel cycle cycle.

This argument is explicitly explored in the report; however, what is neglected is that absent a credible, permanent solution for waste, such a "fuel leasing" policy is politically dead in the water. Further, even assuming the development of a permanent repository, it is difficult to conceive of widespread public support for such a policy, given the limited availability of repository capacity.

This would be where the disconnect emerges; in order to credibly advance a fuel leasing strategy (thereby advancing nonproliferation goals), it is highly likely that some form of waste reduction would be required in order to minimize demands upon any given repository. In other words, half-measures such as interim storage are simply insufficient.


The BRC was obviously handed a rather trying and delicate task - trying to untangle three decades of U.S. nuclear waste management policy which had largely found its way into a dead-end. And while many of its instincts are admirable - such as advocating a strategy which is flexible and avoids technological lock-in, this philosophy is taken to an extreme, leading to paralysis in advocating a path forward. Instead, most of what the commission has produced is a call for additional breathing room - itself not bad, but a far cry from the long-term solutions required for spent fuel management.

While a rethought process for siting a geologic repository may fill some of this role, the Commission's reluctance to endorse any technological solutions to waste management (or a clear decision framework for adopting such a technology) is perhaps the report's most glaring shortfall.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Review: "Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World"

Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock that Shaped the World, by Tom Zoellner

I recently have had a bit of down time in the transition to my new career (having finished my Ph.D. and waiting to begin my new job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in October), so while perusing the library this weekend, Zoellner's popular history of Uranium caught my professional interest.

Uranium tells the story of the discovery of uranium, dating all the way back to the Middle Ages, where uranium found in the form of a nuisance mineral associated with silver deposits (pitchblende, loosely translated as "bad luck rock"). The story launches forward then into the discovery of radium (and subsequently, radiation) and its use as a patent medicine and miracle cure for cancer.

The story of uranium is one inextricably tied to the unfortunate history of greed, empire, and colonialism: from the Belgian Congo to the St. Joachimstahl silver mines of Bohemia, the American West and to the Australian North End. At the root of each of these are governments bent upon increasing their power and wealth, from early colonialists to the Nazis and finally the mortal standoff between the American and Soviet superpowers of the Cold War.

Much of Zoellner's history ends of focusing upon the history of uranium as a commodity of war and international domination and the resulting fallout from this perspective, ranging from everything including wildcatting American mineral prospectors hoping to strike it rich in a 1950's "uranium rush" to slave labor prison camps run by the Soviets. Zoellner tells a compelling story of how uranium represented the ultimate power to world governments, and why nuclear weapons are still sought by nations such as Iran even today.

Yet remarkably absent from Zoellner's narrative is much discussion of the flip side of the coin: the promise of clean, abundant energy in addition to a cornucopia of advances in medicine, agriculture, and engineering. While he does an adequate job explaining some of the relevant basics of nuclear physics (a few details are ultimately mangled, perhaps forgivable for what is clearly not a scientific book, written by a non-scientist), he nearly completely omits the drive to establish peaceful uses of nuclear technology which occurred simultaneously with the Cold War buildup, beginning with Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program.

If anything, Zoellner treats the program as an amusing contradiction to the Faustian bargain which produced the atomic bomb. Scarcely mentioned are programs such as "Megatons to Megawatts," perhaps the most successful non-proliferation program to date, which has sought to dismantle and downblend highly-enriched uranium warheads in Russian bombs in order to produce civilian fuel. (By many estimates, as much as ten percent of the electricity in the U.S. is a result of Megatons to Megawatts; in other words, up to half of the current civilian nuclear fuel currently in the fleet traces its origin to this program).

Early advocates of peaceful uses of nuclear energy are frequently dismissed as "futurists" and "dreamers" in Zoellner's text - we are not even treated to the views of nuclear energy advocates until the very last chapter of the book, where the renaissance in nuclear energy is framed in the context of climate change and the need for carbon-free energy. All of this ignores the fact that in this supposedly sterile time for peaceful uses of the atom, the United States managed to build the largest fleet of civilian power reactors in the world, providing about 20% of the nation's power. A frustrating aspect of his history is in its inherent and permeating pessimism; peaceful uses of the atom are essentially an afterthought. Only at the very end does one catch a glimpse at what I am coming to realize is an increasingly common thread among many nuclear professionals - many of us are in this field explicitly because we see the potential for abundance and prosperity that nuclear energy promises.

Perhaps more frustrating still is Zoellner's seemingly irrepressible urge to characterize uranium as a demon metal, imbuing it with a nearly superstitious character. One is never failed to be reminded of the fact that is radioactive and "unstable," yellowcake powder (U3O8) is repeatedly described as a "sickly" yellow in color. (The only element treated to even greater superstition and aspersion is plutonium.) Zoellner at least manages to temper this, at times acknowledging the fact that uranium presents a minimal hazard when handled (gloves are generally all that is required); the chief hazard comes from inhaling the dust (where the radioactive daughter products can lodge into the lungs).

Likewise to his credit, Zoellner presents a compelling writing style, in spite of his occasional foray into somewhat overly floral prose, with a narrative that races along through history, focusing mainly upon the period between the Manhattan Project and the height of the Cold War. Much of the story is written in the form of a travelogue, detailing his travels to the key places in the history of uranium.

One has but two minor complaints with his style: the first being the constant repetition of certain facts and explanations, with the more detailed explanation often following the more terse one (an indication that the book was likely written in a non-linear fashion, although something that should have been picked up by a more diligent editor); second is in his penchant to jump around from place to place and different time periods (for example, jumping from the Soviet slave labor camps at St. Joachimstahl to the wildcat miners of the Arizona to the Belgian Congo and back again). This is perhaps a stylistic choice to keep things from being bogged down too much (after all, one can only read so much of the depressing and inhumane conditions of forced labor camps in the Eastern Bloc only to jump to the cruelty of colonial taskmasters in the Belgian Congo), but at times runs the risk of moral equivalency; certainly, the environmental effects of unrestricted mining (and subsequently lax management of the unused uranium tailings) is a black mark, but it hardly compares to the brutal conditions carried out by the Nazis and later the Soviets.

Despite these issues, Uranium is a compelling read, particularly for understanding the early history and overwhelming influence of the government (particularly in terms of weapons) that lead us to where we are today. While not explicitly discussed in the book, one can pick up traces of how the unique place in history of uranium has lead us to the fuel cycle we have today, as opposed to alternatives such as thorium-based cycles. Trained nuclear professionals (and scientifically literate lay readers) may cringe a bit at where Zoellner at times get the details "mostly right," but overall it is an enjoyable and interesting read, one where I found myself racing through the text (and finished in two days).

An addendum: Zoellner also appeared on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart to promote his book.

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Dissecting the BRC report, Part I: Where they got it right

Earlier this week, I gave a summary of the findings of the draft report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Energy Future. Several experts have already made their responses to the BRC's recommendations known - both at Brave New Climate and Atomic Insights. While as a relatively new nuclear professional, I lack some of the gravitas of much more established folks, the issue of nuclear waste management and associated policy is of primary interest to me, and thus I wanted to add my thoughts. 

To start things on a positive note, there were many helpful observations made in the report about the over geologic repository siting process (as well as the overall process of waste management policy) which should be highlighted. (To emphasize: even under advanced recycle scenarios, where long-lived actinides are recycled as fuel, some geologic repository will be necessary to handle fission product wastes; however, the engineering requirements would be substantially relaxed, given the shorter time periods for decay.) Thus, this post will focus on some of the highlights where the commission hit upon important, constructive ideas for waste management policy. Future posts in this series will look at where the report fell short.

As an additional aside: ANS is actively soliciting public comments on the entire BRC report for compilation.

A consent-based process 

One place where I am happy to eat (some of) my prior criticisms is in the report's overall emphasis upon a consent-based process for locating a permanent repository site. In fact, much of the analysis in revising the repository siting process focused on a means of engineering a consent-based process, similar to that achieved in Sweeden with the SKB repository; the report also repeatedly emphasized the success of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP, a salt-dome repository for defense waste in southern New Mexico). In particular, the BRC report identifies the importance of state-level cooperation in the waste management process.

The peculiar case of "Salt Vault"

An instructive historical example mentioned in the report is the case of "Project Salt Vault" in Lyons, Kansas in the 1960's. Much of the report's analysis points to the ultimate failure of Salt Vault, due to broad state opposition. However, focusing merely upon the terminal failure misses the greater part of the lesson, namely that community consent is not simply a random force of nature to be contended with, but rather something which can be cultivated with careful work and planning - and very quickly destroyed.

Initially, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was tasked to investigate disposal options for used nuclear fuel. Salt domes offer an attractive geologic disposal option because the existence of salt domes typically belies an area which has been relatively impermeable to water for long periods of time on a geologic scale (e.g., otherwise the salt would simply dissolve into brine). In addition, the heat of spent fuel causes salt to "plastically deform" around the spent fuel casks - in other words, the caverns "heal" around the shape of the container, thus sealing the chamber naturally. Ergo, burying fuel in salt dome formations offers a promising pathway for permanent disposal of intact fuel and long-lived nuclear wastes, as there is reasonable evidence that the formation will be isolated from groundwater, thus securely immobilizing and isolating nuclear waste from the environment.

The story of Salt Vault can be roughly be summed up in two stages. In the initial test phases, the AEC placed great emphasis upon public engagement and consent, contacting local leaders and emphasizing transparency and openness in its operations. During the spent fuel storage test, local citizens were invited to inspect the process and ask questions. Further, and perhaps most importantly, the nature of the test was inherently time-limited. When the experiment was concluded, the AEC removed all nuclear materials from the site, as promised.

The second part of the story picks up in 1970, after fire at the Rocky Flats plutonium facility in Colorado, which set about a chain of events which required the rapid development of a permanent repository for defense waste materials from the nuclear weapons complex. In 1970, the AEC announced - much to the surprise of local leaders - that pending further geological surveys, the Lyons site would be selected as a permanent repository. Unlike the earlier process, local residents and political leaders dug in their heels, and eventually the site was declared to be unfeasible on technical grounds.

What is unmistakable in this example is the impact an open, consent-based process can make. Projects such as SKB and WIPP have been successful precisely because they occurred in a manner which is predicated upon the consent of the local population. In this sense, the BRC report offers helpful analysis for a matter which unfortunately should have been obvious long before now.

Under new management

Likewise, the BRC's recommendations for a federally-chartered corporation (similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority) with dedicated access to the Nuclear Waste Fund also promises to solve other inherent problems which have stymied waste management policy in the U.S. Namely, as of now, waste management operations are a line item in the annual budget; in other words, despite the fact that nuclear operators (and thus ultimately you, the consumer) pay for the cost of disposal in the form of a $0.001/kWh tax on production, the DOE must specifically request funds to manage operations from Congress each year. Which of course means that waste management operations are subject to the whims of politicians, each and every year - including stunts like "defunding" projects mandated by law such as Yucca Mountain and attempting to hijack the repository licensing process through attrition. (Whether one approves of Yucca Mountain as a geologic repository or not - and I think there are better options available - it is still the existing law of the land, per the 1987 amendments to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and thus what the administration has done is clearly illegal.) 

The net result has three decades wasted for a $13 billion hole in the ground, in addition to the approximately $20 billion (with interest) that has been collected by Congress but not allocated. Thus, a clear case can be made for a greater degree of overall independence in nuclear waste management operations.

Flexibility in the process

A particular point of emphasis throughout the BRC report is in maintaining a flexible, staged process which easily lends itself to adaptations due to unforeseen circumstances, in marked contrast to the current policy which committed to Yucca Mountain as the nation's sole geologic repository site early on (for reasons of perceived political expediency). A blistering criticism of the current Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in the report is in the inflexibility and relative prescriptiveness of the current policy, "locking in" a single solution to nuclear waste management with little flexibility to adapt to new technologies and developments (including both political developments - such as widespread local opposition - and technical developments, such as unexpected revelations in site characteristics). Specifically, the report criticizes the 1987 amendments to the NWPA for failing to account for the contingency that Yucca Mountain should prove untenable.

By contrast, the report's conclusions emphasize the need for a process which avoids "lock-in" - both in terms of policy and technology. Rather, they highlight the need for a phased process which affords maximum flexibility. It should thus come as no surprise, given this perspective, that the report focuses chiefly upon centralized interim storage for fuel (i.e., storing spent fuel in concrete casks in a centralized location) as a medium-term solution for waste management, while options for a geologic repository or other alternatives (such as reprocessing) are evaluated.

Such a strategy bears remarkable similarity to the original NWPA framework (prior to the 1987 amendments), where a second site was to be designated for "monitored retrievable storage" (MRS). The goal of MRS was to provide a medium-term storage location for fuel where it could later be easily retrieved, either for purposes of recovery or for final treatment and disposal elsewhere. In the original framework, an MRS site was not scheduled to be opened until a permanent repository had been located, as to avoid the perception that an MRS site could become a "de facto" permanent repository.

Likewise, the original provisions for the geologic repository prescribed a fixed period of retrievability. However, these provisions were less for purposes of alternative strategies (e.g., reprocessing) as much as the ability to respond to unforeseen technical problems, i.e., should the repository not perform as expected.

Summing it up

Much of the BRC's focus on the process of waste management is important, echoing many of the criticisms waste management experts have made for some time. In particular, nuclear waste management has long been a political problem more than a technical one in the United States (which is not to understate the gravity of the technical challenge). In this sense, the BRC report offers a useful blueprint for the repository process for any future geologic repository process.

Unfortunately, as will be laid out in following posts, this provides little in the means of immediate solutions for nuclear waste management. In particular, the Commission was extremely reluctant to endorse any of the plethora of technical options available for waste management and disposal, instead preferring to outline a strategy for starting over while buying breathing room for the federal government. Most of the practical, immediate solutions for managing spent fuel in the U.S. rely on the concept of centralized interim storage - which while perhaps better than the status quo, is not without its own problems, as will be discussed in the following posts. 

Ultimately, a credible strategy for the entire fuel cycle is necessary for the continued overall acceptance of nuclear energy. While considerations such as economics and safety will always be at the forefront, it is my belief that a credible and technically sound solution for managing spent fuel remains as the last true barrier to widespread public acceptance of nuclear energy, namely because of its current perceive intractability (unlike safety and economics). 

Hence there is a need not only to establish a sound process (which the BRC does a reasonably good job with), but also to begin a process of laying out a commitment to credible solutions - something both the BRC and the federal government have been less forthcoming with.