NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 29, 2010

President Obama wants to triple the amount of loans the federal government guarantees in order to jumpstart seven to 10 new nuclear power projects over the next decade.  However, until the government meets its legal obligation to provide storage for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste, only a few new nuclear reactors are likely to be built, says H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.  

With waste building up, Congress passed the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act (amended in 1988) to ensure proper long-term storage.  The act required the U.S. Department of Energy to develop and maintain an underground storage facility for nuclear waste.

The Energy Department determined that Yucca Mountain, Nevada, was a satisfactory storage place.  However, despite scientific evidence that Yucca Mountain is safe, lawsuits and political wrangling have prevented use of the site as a storage facility.  

The uranium in spent nuclear fuel rods can be reprocessed into new fuel.  Most of the nuclear waste disposal problem would be eliminated if the government ended its prohibition on recycling.  In addition, recycling used fuel rods would provide a nearly endless source of domestic energy.  The United States has abundant uranium (raw nuclear fuel) sources.  Indeed, at current levels of use, accessible uranium reserves can provide an estimated 300-year worldwide supply of fuel, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

  • One kilogram of natural uranium contains as much energy as 38.5 tons of coal, but only about 3 percent of that energy is utilized in conventional reactors.
  • Thus, recycling existing and future spent fuel rods would provide a virtually unlimited supply of nuclear fuel.
  • Even greater nuclear fuel supplies can be liberated from more than 15,000 plutonium pits removed from dismantled U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons.

Even with recycling, nuclear energy production will create radioactive waste.  The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, has been operating for more than nine years.  More than 100,000 containers of radioactive material -- equivalent to about 280,000 55-gallon drums -- have been stored in a massive bedded (layered) salt deposit there. The salt in the formation is self-sealing: It flows like sand to fill in, or seal, the disposal chambers completely.  The location is remote, but has sufficient infrastructure for ongoing disposal operations.  WIPP has been extensively monitored for human health and environmental risks for 15 years, including six years before operations began.  The Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center at New Mexico State University reported that from 1993 to the present there has been no evidence of an increase in contaminants in the ground, air or water near WIPP.

It would also dramatically increase domestic energy supplies. With or without recycling, sites like WIPP offer a safe, ready solution, says Burnett.

Source:   H. Sterling Burnett, "Nuclear Power Development: Removing Roadblocks," National Center for Policy Analysis, Brief Analysis No. 700, March 29, 2010.

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