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.

A Bit of NRC Myth Busting — Part I

Eric Stahl
Acting Public Affairs Officer

Facebook1We’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 Facebook user suggested that nuclear waste could be “encased in thick high strength concrete, then dropped into a churning volcano. It would sink into the magma and over a time it would disperse.” (We took the liberty of cleaning up the typos.)

Spent fuel must be handled and stored with care due to its radioactivity. The only way radioactive waste becomes harmless is through decay, which can take hundreds of thousands of years. As a result, the waste must be stored and disposed of in a way that provides protection to the public for a very long time.

PrintDropping spent fuel into an active volcano would run counter to this idea. Radioactive material could be released into the atmosphere, causing a hazard to people and the environment.

Another Facebook user, on our post about renewing licenses for nuclear power plants beyond the original license renewal, wrote this: “Beyond 60 years They are about to blow now you idiots.”

Contrary to what Hollywood often presents in television and movies, U.S. nuclear reactors are designed with numerous safety features, including containment buildings that continue to protect people and the environment. The nuclear fuel can’t explode, and many reinforcing safety systems would prevent or control the buildup of flammable gases during an accident.

NRC inspectors spend more than 6,000 hours (on average) performing inspection-related activities at each reactor site. In addition, the NRC has a robust aging management program to ensure that the country’s oldest reactors continue to operate safely. Keep in mind that regardless of the age of any reactor, the NRC has authority to address safety issues at any time.

Another Facebook commenter had concerns about the current dry cask storage system. He writes: “All that nuclear waste is being stored in the ground in what is supposed to be 5000 year containers, what if an earthquake hit the storage facility?”

All nuclear waste storage containers, known as “casks,” that are used to store spent fuel in the United States undergo a thorough safety review by the NRC before they’re certified for use. All casks licensed by the NRC must demonstrate their ability to withstand earthquakes and other natural hazards. Once the casks are put into use, they’re continuously monitored for leaks and periodically inspected by the NRC.

Come back tomorrow for Part II!