The growing nuclear waste crisis is stalling the nuclear industry

Nuclear industry slowed by its own waste By Kristi Swartz The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 23 Sept 12, “…..NO MAGIC BULLET’ Utilities store a total of 2,000-2,300 metric tons of used nuclear fuel a year, according to industry figures. That adds up to about 65,000 metric tons of radioactive waste currently sitting at nuclear plants.
“If we reject long-term storage, we’re left with dry casking, and that’s it,” said Cham Dallas, a professor and director at the University of Georgia’s Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense. “Yes, it’s probably safe, but can we continue this policy for an infinite number of years?”
The concerns over safely handling nuclear waste are many.
Used nuclear fuel is very concentrated. This means the amount of waste is very small, but it requires more effort to keep it protected. Some of the material loses its radioactivity after just a few days, but other parts of the fuel remain toxic.
Scientists warn of the dangers of what’s known as “re-racking.” Utilities typically shut down a reactor every 18 months to remove about one-third of the spent (yet still radioactive) fuel rods and replace them with new ones. The removed rods are placed into large racks and then submerged under water, where they stay for five years or longer. The pools were designed as a temporary cooling basin, but utilities have been able to store more fuel rods by “re-racking,” or reorganizing the way the rods sit in the pool. But the closer together the fuel rods sit, the greater the heat source. “These pools have become sources of radioactivity much larger than the reactor itself,” said Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear physicist who runs the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research — a Takoma Park, Md., nonprofit that focuses on the security aspects of nuclear weapons production and nuclear technology.
Keeping used fuel in dry casks at dozens of reactor sites is a temporary solution that even supporters of the nuclear industry warn isn’t secure. The concern? That the dry casks could be stolen and the spent fuel offered on the black market. “It’s a local option gone bad,” UGA’s Dallas said. “Eventually somebody’s going to foul up, and [the spent fuel] gets out and is sold somewhere.”
Dominant long-term solutions, such as recycling the radioactive fuel or moving the waste to a central repository, still raise concerns.
“Thinking about just transporting it, it’s incredibly dangerous,” said Courtney Hanson, public outreach coordinator at Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions. “Putting nuclear waste on the train, on a semi-truck that’s going to drive across the interstate: Regardless of whether there’s high-level security, accidents happen.”
Recycling the fuel — putting it through a large chemical processing plant — separates the uranium and plutonium, both of which can be used again. But the rest of the material is waste that remains very hot and radioactive. This material must be packaged in something that is stable, such as glass, and left to decay, scientists and industry experts said. That decay process takes a few hundred years…….
Buzz Miller, executive vice president of nuclear development for Georgia Power and its sister company, Southern Nuclear, said he’s confident someone will come up with a technically sound solution to store the used fuel long term. Meanwhile, he said, there’s plenty of room to store the rods at the plant.
“From our view, our job is to maintain them safely and securely, and there’s no question we can do that, whether it’s in the pools or in the dry cask,” Miller said. “I believe, in time, we’ll come up with solutions that we haven’t even thought of.”


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