The old idiom “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” can be viewed to mean that an object that one man views as trash another person sees as valuable. However, when we see the shiny LeMay Auto Museum in downtown Tacoma, we think of an alternate interpretation of the idiom. Harold LeMay’s garbage company made a fortune, or treasure, disposing of other people’s trash. Cash treasure which he exchanged for over 3,000 cars, which he treasured. He treasured them so much that he willed them to the Museum so they would become a National Treasure.
It seems that no one wants to accept the nation’s nuclear waste, but if Washington State decides to become the “LeMay” of nuclear garbage, the State would generate much more treasure than Harold LeMay did disposing of people’s household garbage. In fact, the State will make Billions and Billions of Dollars to add to its Treasury. (The reason for the $$$ in our page title.) As of May 2014, the Federal Nuclear Waste Fund has assets of over $30.9 billion. It had been accumulating fees at a rate of $750 million per year plus accruing $1 billion in interest annually but as of May, 2014 the administration stopped collecting the fees.
Americans have created an image of nuclear waste being a mutantizing monster that we have to lock away forever. This is hogwash. We have lived with this “monster” for millennia and can continue to so as long as we don’t get in the cage with it. (This is not really an accurate analogy as we live in its cage!)
Nuclear waste is not the problem; it is the radiation it gives off. Over expose yourself to solar radiation and you get sunburn. Stay out of the sun and you don’t get burned. Heck, we irradiate ourselves. Our body contains a radioactive isotope of Potassium, P-40, which emits beta and gamma particles as it decays. It irradiates us from inside with approximately 30 times the radiation we receive from nuclear power plants. (Don’t worry! It’s not that P-40 radiation is high it is just that our exposure from nuclear power is very, very low.)
Americans have fixated ourselves on the idea that we have to lock nuclear waste in a vault for millions of years to keep it away from us. The reverse is probably a better idea. We should just stay away from it!
Imagine these two scenarios happening a thousand years in the future.
(1) A Nevada miner who unknowingly digs into a long abandoned nuclear burial vault, (Congress stopped funding its upkeep centuries before), or
(2) a nuclear tourist wandering around the Hanford Energy Reserve, (which is still actively producing energy) and sees this freshly painted nuclear danger sign.
Which person is more likely to be exposed to radiation?
Burke’s Hanford tour provided a real life example. The tour traveled all over Hanford, even to an area known to have leaking nuclear waste storage tanks. At an intersection, his bus encountered a flagman holding a similar warning sign. Instead of the driver instructing his passengers to don their nonexistent radiation suits, the driver just turned the bus away and took another route to their next destination. At that moment, Burke realized that protecting ourselves from nuclear waste radiation is not the insurmountable problem some make it out to be. Therefore, from now on we will not talk about Nuclear Waste Disposal but of Nuclear Waste Isolation.
In 2012, “The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future” has started to bring reason to the unreasonable. Two key recommendations in the Commission’s Report are that the Federal Government should focus more of its
disposal isolation efforts on developing centralized interim storage and then look for volunteers for permanent disposal isolation sites. We can help them with both.
It has been said that Hanford contains more high-level nuclear wastes than anywhere else in this country, if not the world. In her statement urging continued funding for the Nevada Disposal Site, our Senator, Patty Murray, argued that Hanford already had two-thirds of our high-level waste and someone else should get the rest. July 22, 2010 (Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) released the following statement after her amendment to direct the Secretary of Energy to continue the YuccaMountain licensing process was voted down in the full Senate Appropriations Committee by a vote of 13-16. “I am disappointed that the Obama Administration’s misguided decision to unilaterally remove Yucca Mountain from consideration as a national nuclear repository was not reversed with today’s vote. Over the past 30 years, billions in taxpayer dollars, numerous independent studies, and key Congressional votes have all gone to support Yucca Mountain as the nation’s best option for a nuclear repository. Turning our back on that work and further delaying our legal and moral obligation to clean up nuclear waste is a serious mistake. “Our shared responsibility for cleaning up nuclear waste is not a political or partisan issue. It’s about sound science, effective policy, and fulfilling the federal government’s obligation to build a national nuclear waste repository. And since 2002, when I voted to designate Yucca Mountain as a final storage place for high-level nuclear waste, those have been the only factors that guide my work on this process. “As we move forward, I know that this will continue to be an uphill battle in Congress and that this will ultimately be decided by the courts. But I also know that with two-thirds of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste piling up in my state, we don’t have the time or luxury of scrapping decades of planning for legitimate storage options. “I will continue to stand up to ensure that every option for a final nuclear repository is considered, not because it’s easy, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
Senator Murray’s Statement on Vote on Yucca Mountain Amendment
July 22, 2010
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) released the following statement after her amendment to direct the Secretary of Energy to continue the YuccaMountain licensing process was voted down in the full Senate Appropriations Committee by a vote of 13-16.
“I am disappointed that the Obama Administration’s misguided decision to unilaterally remove Yucca Mountain from consideration as a national nuclear repository was not reversed with today’s vote. Over the past 30 years, billions in taxpayer dollars, numerous independent studies, and key Congressional votes have all gone to support Yucca Mountain as the nation’s best option for a nuclear repository. Turning our back on that work and further delaying our legal and moral obligation to clean up nuclear waste is a serious mistake.
“Our shared responsibility for cleaning up nuclear waste is not a political or partisan issue. It’s about sound science, effective policy, and fulfilling the federal government’s obligation to build a national nuclear waste repository. And since 2002, when I voted to designate Yucca Mountain as a final storage place for high-level nuclear waste, those have been the only factors that guide my work on this process.
“As we move forward, I know that this will continue to be an uphill battle in Congress and that this will ultimately be decided by the courts. But I also know that with two-thirds of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste piling up in my state, we don’t have the time or luxury of scrapping decades of planning for legitimate storage options.
“I will continue to stand up to ensure that every option for a final nuclear repository is considered, not because it’s easy, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
We say, “Give Us The Money” and we will take the other third of the nuclear waste.
There is an even more important reason to do this than just the money. We have had ongoing problems with the Federal Government cleaning up the mess that it created at Hanford during the Manhattan Project and its subsequent nuclear weapons efforts. There have been numerous promises to clean up Hanford, but many have been broken because of the Federal Government’s lack of political will. If Hanford were a suburb of Washington D.C., it would be free of nuclear dangers, covered with grass, and have a reflecting pool.
Let’s tell the Federal Government that we will supervise the Hanford cleanup and accept the nation’s spent nuclear fuel for interim storage in exchange for control and money. By control, we mean we will work with others, but Washington State, or some future regional organization, will have final say. By interim storage, we mean that we will safely store the spent fuel for at least a hundred years, probably much longer, and likely forever. We will see what works out. Hanford was on the original shortlist of permanent repositories and maybe we should keep the nuclear waste forever. There is no rush to decide. Being the interim repository, we have a hundred years or so to decide.
We have limited our initial proposal to spent nuclear fuel because nuclear plant owners have been paying a fee to the Federal Government to take their nuclear waste, mostly spent fuel, off their hands. However, the Feds have not done it, and they are being sued for non-performance. Currently, their court losses total nearly $2 billion. If the Federal Government continues failing to perform, the court awarded damages could reach $20 billion by 2020. Even worse, the trust fund monies are going into the General Treasury and need a congressional appropriation to get them out.
To start, we propose establishing an interim storage site for all the spent fuel casks presently stored at the power plant sites around the nation. If all of the casks were moved to a safe storage/isolation trench at Hanford it would greatly reduce the chance that terrorists, natural disasters, or human errors could breach the storage casks If we don’t sit on our hands, the permission for the trench can be negotiated in three months, three more to build the trench and install the monitoring equipment and six more months to move all the casks to Hanford. As for the nuclear critics and pessimists, we did not see much of hullabaloo over the Defense Department digging Trench 94 at Hanford and moving over a hundred retired nuclear submarine reactors there. Click for aerial picture of Trench 94.
The beauty in becoming the interim storage site for spent nuclear fuel is that Washington State will develop a revenue stream from the garbage fees it collects from each nuclear power plant.
We propose Washington State establish the Washington State Nuclear Storage and Isolation Department (Washington NSAID) to relieve the Nation’s pain from its nuclear waste problems in exchange for the monies deposited to date. In the future, nuclear plant operators will remit their payments directly to WA NSAID. We must have the nuclear garbage fees come directly to the Department to be sure that it has a funding stream independent of the funding whims of Congress or our Legislature.
Nuclear fuel recycling is a hot-button issue in the United States. We are viewing this issue with the common sense we had when we were young and wanted to start a fire on Alki Beach. First, we looked for unburned wood remaining in extinguished fires. Fuel removed from nuclear reactors is like that partially burned firewood; it contains a lot of unburned energy. Used nuclear fuel should be recycled and its unused elements incorporated into new fuel assemblies. Nuclear fuel containing recycled elements is called MOX (Mixed OXides), and other countries have been using it since the 1980s. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) has an excellent in-depth discussion of Nuclear Fuel Recycling including the topic of MOX. In our view, this is the best single website for fuel recycling information. Information from United States sources, even industry, and government nuclear proponents, seem measured because of the public’s unfounded fears of nuclear fuel recycling.
We cannot discuss nuclear fuel recycling without referring to the French multinational company, AREVA. They do it all; mining, manufacturing of fuel assemblies (Front End), building and supporting reactors, as well as storing and recycling fuel (Back End). Watch this AREVA Back End Video, it’s an ad, but it clearly illustrates America’s head-in-sand view of nuclear fuel recycling. If you browse AREVA’s website you will see what the world’s premier nuclear company looks like. If decades ago, environmentalists had not scared Americans away from nuclear power, AREVA would be spelled “GE” or “Westinghouse.”
One solution to hot fuel storage and fuel recycling would be to contract with AREVA to build a storage facility for the hotter fuel assemblies and have them build a plant to reprocess all the spent nuclear fuel. AREVA can build and operate the facilities but Washington State should own them. (Presently, AREVA employs several hundred people at Hanford manufacturing new fuel assemblies.) Remember, the reason Hanford was built was to recycle nuclear fuel. AREVA has a White Paper on Fuel Recycling: Essential Element of a Sustainable Nuclear Fuel Cycle.
Since we wrote the above paragraph, GE has mounted a major marketing effort that might lead to us saying AREVA is spelled GEH (as in GE Hitachi). The reason is that GEH is promoting its IV generation reactor, the PRISM as a way for the UK to dispose of its Plutonium stockpile and recycle used fuel from their light water reactors.
As we said, the US has its head in the sand about fuel recycling and disposal. However, the installation of multiple PRISM reactors at Hanford could provide us with a way to recycle the used fuel we collected by opening an interim storage facility while generating billions of dollars of clean electrical energy.
The PRISM is fueled with Plutonium and depleted Uranium obtained from used light water reactor fuel. Unlike MOX fuel described above, simpler electrometallurgical reprocessing leaves all transuranic elements (elements having atomic numbers greater than uranium) together so that fresh fuel includes the minor actinides (elements atomic numbers 89 to 103 except U and Pu) with the plutonium and uranium. These actinides are a major source of the radiation danger from spent fuel. The PRISM transmutes these elements into inert elements, something regular fuel recycling does not do. Hence its nickname, “The reactor that “eats” nuclear waste.”
The GE-Hitachi (GEH) PRISM is a compact modular pool-type reactor with passive cooling for decay heat removal. Each PRISM power block consists of two 311 MWe modules each with one steam generator, that collectively drive one turbine generator. The pool-type modules below ground level contain the complete primary system with sodium coolant at about 500°C.
The commercial-scale plant concept, called an ‘Advanced Recycling Center’, would use three power blocks (six reactor modules) to produce 1866 MWe.
GE has been proposing a PRISM “power block” to deactivate the UK’s stock of plutonium. This is GEH’s home page for this effort. Most of the website is generic and applicable to the US as well as the UK. This page from their website explains how the PRISM works. The UK’s “the Engineer” magazine which has an excellent article on the PRISM. ENW thinks so highly of PRISM that we have assigned it its own page, GEH PRISM.
Wikipedia’s entry for the PRISM
(The Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) at Hanford was the most recent antecedent to the PRISM. This 400-megawatt (thermal) sodium-cooled research and test reactor demonstrated the viability and safety of this fast flux design. The site of the FFTF is now surplus and would be an excellent location for GE’s first PRISM. – ENW).
Wikipedia page on the FFTF
Hanford DOE page on the FFTF
The United States Nuclear Regulatory Agency (U.S.NRC) is the federal agency regulating most civilian nuclear activities. If you want to learn more on the issue of nuclear waste, reading their Backgrounder on Nuclear Waste is a good place to start. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry organization, has an extensive website on nuclear issues. Here is a link to the NEI Nuclear Waste article.
Now that we have started to Energize the Northwest you can see What’s Next.