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A Bit of NRC Myth Busting — Part II

Eric Stahl
Acting Public Affairs Officer

 Facebook1As we said in yesterday’s Part I, we’ve taken a few of the interesting comments we’ve received on our Facebook page and posed them to our experts for their take on the question, suggestion or assertion. Here are their responses.

One user had several ideas for dealing with spent fuel including “mixing it in glass” and then burying it “in ice in Antarctica” or “blasting the glass off to Venus or Mars.”

 Mixing spent fuel with glass, a process known as “vitrification,” is one method that has been tested to treat nuclear waste in several countries. The idea supposes that mixing radioactive waste with other materials will create a more stable solution that won’t degrade over time.

??????In the U.S., over 50 million gallons of liquid waste from plutonium production at the Hanford site in Washington State will be vitrified and then stored onsite. DOE, who is responsible for oversight at Hanford, expects radioactivity levels in the material to greatly reduce in the future. If the country’s nuclear waste disposal policy was to turn toward vitrification, an application would need to come from the Department of Energy to the NRC. The NRC would be responsible for regulation.

However, burying vitrified spent fuel in Antarctica isn’t an option. Article V of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which the U.S. signed, prohibits the disposal of nuclear waste in Antarctica.

PrintSending vitrified spent fuel into space would be a risky and prohibitively expensive idea. According to NASA, it costs approximately $10,000 per pound to send things into orbit. Considering there’s currently more than 70,000 tons of spent fuel in the United States, shooting it into space wouldn’t be cost effective. In addition, a catastrophic accident involving a spacecraft hauling nuclear waste into space could cause radioactive material to contaminate the environment.

In any event, U.S. policy for spent fuel disposal is to place it in a deep geologic repository. Until and unless Congress changes the law, that will remain the policy.

And, finally, there are multiple comments about the wisdom and benefit of new reactor designs, especially one using fissile uranium salt.

The NRC is working to ensure we have the expertise available to review future advanced reactors (such as molten salt or high-temperature gas designs). The NRC will determine if those future designs are acceptable for U.S. use, and we’re working with the Department of Energy to inform advanced reactor designers how the review process will work. The NRC’s role, though, is regulating new designs, not initiating them.

7 responses to “A Bit of NRC Myth Busting — Part II

  1. Bryan Chesebrough May 16, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    As several commenters have pointed out, there are many GEN IV Designs that could utilize “Spent Nuclear Fuel” as a fuel source. (Makes one wonder why it isn’t referred to as “UN-Spent Nuclear Fuel”) But anyway, perhaps part of the NEW regulatory regime of the NRC should be to provide suggestions to both the legisislative and executive branches of our government on how remaining fissile materials from LWRs might be utilized. Existing Nuclear Facilities had been contributing approx $750 Million annually to the Nuclear Waste Fund and there is currently approx a $25 Billion balance in the fund. Conceivably, the NRC might suggest to Congress that a portion of this reserve balance be provided for development of any GEN IV reactor designs that have the potential for significantly reducing the amount of UNspent Nuclear Fuel through the production of energy.

    I saw somewhere in the NRC blog a comment by an NRC representative – something to the effect “Many new designs look good on paper, the difficulties arise when you actually try to build them”. With that mind set we’d still be running our submarines and aircraft carriers on diesel or gas-turbine engines, Say what you like about Hyman Rickover, he had the vision, conviction, and tenacity to relentlessly advocate for something he believed in and ultimately prevailed. Is it too much to ask that the NRC and the DOE use their expertise to make some suggestions to our elected officials on how we might proceed? After all, we have already spent in excess of $10 Billion on Yucca’s on again-off again history and it doesn’t hold the promise of future utilization of the material without one of the NEW Nuclear design approaches being realized.

  2. Anonymous May 16, 2016 at 2:09 pm

    I think if staff does not have anything serious to do, don’t throw such wreckless ideas such as shooting waste into space etc. We have enough head ache as such, storing these in fuel pools and in ISFSIs at site and keeping the environmental types off our backs. Please concentrate on other serious issues!

  3. Garry Morgan May 12, 2016 at 11:23 am

    Speaking of myth busting.
    Billions spent on nuclear reactors never used, billions spent on underground storage along with fraudulent activity involved in the underground repository. Why would you build such a site as an underground repository without acquiring water rights or other rights for land use (NRC refused licensing for this very reason.) prior to spending in excess of 10 billion dollars, that is not only busting the myth of frugal spending, it is busting the myth that some folks within the nuclear industry and our government are not insane?? Is this the future of nuclear power which is not a myth, the benefit of corporate charlatans and not the people?

  4. Bryan Chesebrough May 12, 2016 at 11:15 am

    It is gratifying for the NRC to recognize that they have a defining role in regulating NEW advanced reactor designs. It is a little disingenuous to suggest that this has always been the position of the NRC. The work of Dr. Charles Till on the IFR at Argonne National Lab and the work of Dr. Alvin Weinberg on the MSRE at Oak Ridge National Lab stimulated insufficient intellectual curiosity on the part of NRC officials to seriously petition congress to fund the NRC to initiate efforts to develop sufficient expertise to develop a regulatory pathway for anything other than LWRs. It would be interesting to ask your experts why this condition existed and persisted for so long.

  5. Mitch May 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    This is one Chicken Little topic. If it were up to engineers instead of wind-vane politicians spinning to a frightful FUD-fed public, this “mega problem” would’ve been long laid to rest thousands of feet down generations ago.

    • drgenenelson May 11, 2016 at 3:34 pm

      Since only a tiny fraction of the energy from fission is recovered from so-called “Spent Nuclear Fuel” (SNF) it is important to recognize that some of the proposed reactor designs, such as the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) will use SNF as fuel.

      • Engineer-Poet May 12, 2016 at 11:01 pm

        There are plenty of reactors, existing and proposed, which can take “spent” LWR fuel as fuel.  These include:
        1.  Pretty much any graphite-moderated reactor.
        2.  Heavy-water reactors.
        3.  Fast-spectrum reactors, which require separation of the LWR fuel into fissile and fertile components but can consume ~99% of it eventually.

        There is AFAIK one reactor proposal aimed at taking spent LWR fuel and dissolving it in salts without much in the way of other processing, and that is TransAtomic.  TransAtomic has a lower fissile loading than a fast-spectrum reactor but doesn’t achieve as much total fuel utilization.

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