MIT recommends interim storage for nuclear waste

A report argues for action on dealing with spent nuclear fuel stored at power plants in the U.S., a situation brought to light from Japan's nuclear crisis.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read
Spent fuel is stored in large swimming pools where enough residual heat is released after about five years for the fuel rods to be removed.
Spent fuel is stored in large pools where enough residual heat is released after about five years for the fuel rods to be removed. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Regardless of whether spent fuel from today's nuclear reactors is treated as waste or reused as fuel in the future, an expert commission says the U.S. should create a centralized storage system, an issue drawn into sharp focus because of Japan's current nuclear crisis.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology today released a report called the "Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle," where a panel argued that U.S. policy needs to make spent-fuel treatment an integral part of nuclear plant operations, rather than an "afterthought." Today is the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident.

Used nuclear fuel from power plants is currently stored on site at nuclear power plants in the U.S. and other countries in spent-fuel pools or in concrete dry casks. Following a devastating earthquake and tsunami, workers at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan have been struggling to reinstate the cooling system of spent-fuel pools to avert a release of more radioactive material.

The MIT report recommends that existing spent fuel stored on site be brought to centralized sites and stored in concrete dry casks suitable for 100 years of storage. For long-term storage of thousands of years, geological formations are suitable for safe storage, the study says.

Following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the U.S. utility industry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission are reevaluating the notion of a centralized interim storage operation, some of the study's authors said at a press conference today. The disaster will also raise the costs of nuclear power because of the uncertainly around policy and public acceptance.

"Really my hope is that one of the outcomes of the Fukushima crisis...is that it will get a refocusing on the need to get our act together on the back end of the fuel cycle," said Ernest Moniz, who co-chaired the study and is the director of the MIT Energy Initiative.

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To deal with the question of how to handle nuclear waste, the report recommends that a quasi-governmental body be created with the authority to influence policy and deal with local communities on siting storage facilities.

Light-water reactors endure
One of the conclusions from the spent-fuel study is that light-water reactors, the current design of nuclear power plants, will remain in place for decades unless there is a sharp increase in the use of nuclear power.

Technology transitions in the nuclear industry take decades and there is not a strong economic incentive to move away from light-water reactors because of the supply or cost of uranium, according to the study.

A dry cask storage which is suitable for decades of spent-fuel storage. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Given that light-water reactors will remain dominant for decades, the study's authors argue that research and development on the order of $1 billion a year should be dedicated to improving current designs and dealing with spent fuel to prevent release of radioactive material and limit nuclear proliferation.

Interim storage can be done so that countries have the flexibility to retrieve spent fuel from light-water reactors for use as a fuel in so-called fast reactors.

"France has shown we can do spent-fuel storage for 50 years using dry casks," said Andrew Kadak, the director of nuclear services at consulting company Exponent and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It will be many decades before we know whether this is a resource or a waste. Right now there is no economic incentive to recycle spent fuel."

Having a strategy around spent fuel will also aid nuclear proliferation, said Moniz. One possibility is to start leasing fuel from one country to others, which would limit proliferation risk, but that requires a storage policy, he said.

The report was funded by the Electric Power Research Institute, the Idaho National Laboratory, and large companies working in the nuclear industry.