This Tuesday, the Federation of American Scientists and the Heritage Foundation hosted a briefing on nuclear waste management. Featured were speakers Dr. Charles Ferguson, Professor Clifford Singer, Mr. Jack Spencer, and Ms. Sharon Squassoni.
Singer began with a discussion of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations and how to close the gap between their recommendations and current policy. He suggested “aging” facilities for spent nuclear fuel that would allow fuel to remain aboveground for longer so that not as much fuel needs to be buried. He brought up the idea of a licensing program for nuclear waste depositories that would allow states to compete for the depository location after being offered an incentive to do so. The idea would be to have three states submit applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who would choose the final states to be licensed. Singer noted that the Blue Ribbon Commission recommended a consent-based approach, so that the states that wanted to avoid nuclear waste could. This process of licensing and listing repositories would allow for the reduction of spent fuel transportation costs, which would mean allocation of funds to state-supported efforts.
Ferguson shared his knowledge of Sweden’s waste disposal technologies, which consist of a four-layer method. First, the spent fuel is placed inside a cladding tube, which is then enclosed in a copper canister that has a cast iron insert. This is then enclosed in bentonite clay, which can absorb liquids that may attempt to leak into the waste unit. The clay is put inside crystalline bedrock, which is a third of a mile underground a Swedish power plant and nuclear-friendly community. (Schematic can be found here.) Ferguson acknowledged that while the Swedish government is more centralized than our own, and that therefore it may be more difficult to pass such a measure in the US, their methods could provoke thought as to our own waste disposal techniques. He also recognized that one problem with this method is the potential oxidation of copper, although this is a minimal issue, and noted that Finland, Canada and the United Kingdom have similar plans. The cost for these waste units is approximately $0.0015 per kilowatt of energy produced, which for the US, would total to $14 billion.
Spencer then spoke about his take on the waste disposal debate. He voiced his disagreement with the Blue Ribbon Commission’s approach, but did not critique it. Instead, he proposed his own solution to the problem. Spencer asserted that our current system needs major reform. Since the government controls waste management, waste management is separated from production, when it would be most successful if they were connected. Because of this disconnect, Spencer stated, there exists an anti-competition technology lock that will never have success. He stressed the importance of introducing capitalism to the waste disposal industry in order to create an economically sustainable market that would eventually cause the producers of the waste to look harder to find economically feasible ways of disposing of their own waste due to their personal investment in it. He disagreed with the Blue Ribbon Commission’s suggestions because it accepts the current system, but agreed that it could bear fruit if applied. Spencer voiced the opinion that when capitalism took hold on the nuclear waste industry, it would mean a nuclear renaissance.
Squassoni then voiced her skepticism on the idea of a nuclear renaissance, but agreed that waste was very important. She introduced the connection between nuclear waste and nuclear nonproliferation, asserting that once commercial US nuclear waste is contained in repositories, it may be possible to import the waste from other countries to our facilities, which could provide an economic boon for the US. She also discussed the potential influence that the US could have on the international community through its nuclear waste control. The US houses many of the reactors in the world, and has a large economy. She said that we are at a juncture where the US could provide international leadership for waste disposal, allowing a view of waste as an asset rather than a liability, if we are able to control our waste and then also import the waste of others.
Although each panelist voiced a distinct opinion, the discussion ended with a general consensus that government oversight was needed in order to carry out nuclear waste management.
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