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With no way to process it, US will bury 70,000 tons of nuclear waste

Published time: February 01, 2013 04:05
Edited time: February 02, 2013 06:31
Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin

Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin

With two decades to go before it can reprocess spent nuclear fuel, the US will have to bury nearly 70,000 tons of it, a research lab reports. It comes after Congress and the Obama administration defunded a planned nuclear waste repository in 2011.

­The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a facility that does research for the Department of Energy (DOE), said that "about 68,450 [metric tons] or about 98 percent of the total current inventory by mass, can proceed to permanent disposal without the need to ensure retrievability for reuse or research purposes" in its report, published near the end of 2012. The rest of the waste, the report said, could be kept available for research on fuel reprocessing and storage.

The report was fairly obscure until being cited in a DOE document that showed plans to find a new permanent waste dump after Congress and the Obama administration cut funding for the Yucca Mountain repository in 2011.

Reprocessing has little support in Washington due to concerns that spent fuel could fall into the wrong hands. Nevertheless the DOE started looking into reprocessing methods in 2005.

But following the March 2011 disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, US officials became wary of recycling radioactive waste. The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, co-chaired by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, said that “no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments — including advances in reprocessing and recycling technologies — have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenges the nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer” in a report.

Reprocessing was not taken off the table following the report, though, with American officials saying it was “premature for the United States to commit, as a matter of policy, to ‘closing’ the nuclear fuel cycle given the large uncertainties that exist about the merits and commercial viability of different fuel cycle and technology options."

The method is seen as a dangerous cash grab by anti-nuclear activists.

Recycling is a euphemism for reprocessing which is one of the worst polluters of the atmosphere and the ocean, and is a direct conduit to proliferation,” Mali Martha Lightfoot, executive director of the Helen Caldicott Foundation, told Forbes. “It is not really a solution to anything except how can the industry get more of our money. It also ups the ante for reactor accident danger, as in the case of Fukushima, because MOX fuel has plutonium in it.”

So-called MOX fuel, short for mixed-oxide, is used in nuclear warheads and usually consists of a mix of plutonium and uranium.

The stock of used nuclear fuel currently held at 79 temporary locations in 34 US states “is massive, diverse, dispersed, and increasing,” according to the Oak Ridge report.

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