There have been three main barriers to the construction of new nuclear power facilities: high construction costs, concerns about plant failure leading to a meltdown, what to do with the spent nuclear fuel (usually called waste). The second problem has been brought to the fore with the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant resulting from the horrific earthquake and subsequent Tsunami.
Even if the leaked radiation doesn’t ultimately result in significant illness or loss of life (and of course I hope it doesn’t), the questions raised by the still ongoing problems at this plant have only increased fear of nuclear power and almost certainly the costs involved in developing and operating an new facility. Since costs are already steep compared to other alternatives for electric power production it is doubtful more than a few of the nuclear plants currently in planning or development will be constructed in the next decade (and maybe ever in their current form).
Whether or not we ever build or operate any additional nuclear power plants in this country, the third issue, what to do with the spent fuel, remains.
As David T. Stevenson, Director of the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Cesar Rodney Institute notes, despite all that has been reported about the problems with the multiple failing reactors at the Japanese plant, the most troubling and immediate potential hazard stems from the loss of water cooling the plant’s stored spent fuel rods. Stevenson states that, “The nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan shows, beyond a doubt, the time has come to open existing, secure nuclear storage facilities in the United States to avert a similar tragedy. Stored fuel is the biggest concern in Japan. We currently store spent nuclear fuel rods at power plants in above ground facilities in secure Transportation, Aging, and Disposal Canisters (TAD). These canisters can be shipped and stored without opening them. There are currently about 71,000 metric tons of spent fuel and high level radioactive waste stored at 121 nuclear power plants and non-military government sites. All of this waste, minus shipping containers, could be stacked forty-one feet high on one football field.”
Stevenson proposes three solutions: Storage at Yucca Mountain, Storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WHIP), and recycling.
Interestingly, these are the same three solutions I examined in a paper released March 2010.
I agree with Stevenson, the time for talk is past, now is the time to either start shipping spent nuclear fuel to the permanent storage facilities which science has already demonstrated time and again to be safe, or to recycle the spent fuel for continued operation of currently existing facilities and to reduce the overall waste stream that ultimately needs to be stored.
As Stevenson, explains, both the money and the facilities exist to handle spent nuclear fuel – all that has been lacking is the political will to act. Hopefully, Japan’s nuclear crisis will serve as a forceful prod getting U.S. politicians to act.