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.


  1. What is being done in other countries, most specifically in France? Did the BRC look abroad to see what might be useful in the USA?

  2. Good questions. To your first, yes they did look abroad - this is where they came up both with the assessment of what is being done as SKB (in Sweeden) as well as evaluating reprocessing, as is done in France.

    France uses the PUREX process, which has been known for about half a century, to extract uranium and plutonium from spent fuel for recycling into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, which can be re-burned in reactors.

    The remaining fission products are stored in a vault in a single building - in other words, the volume reduction in waste is significant.

    The BRC considered this as well as other technological alternatives, but declined to endorse any - this will be the subject of the next post in the series...