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Sunday, June 10, 2012

DFRP Concept: A fresh approach to national waste storage

This week's events and discussion with industry insiders have together led to the paper I present below. I welcome comments on this and would prefer that serious or interested commenters use the e-mail address provided on the right sidebar of Atomic Power Review.


DFRP / Distributed Federal Repository Program: A concept to expedite spent nuclear fuel storage, with increased safety and reduced cost

The D.C. District Court of Appeals' decision to throw out the NRC's Waste Confidence Rule, along with other recent decisions, has again placed the issue of long-term storage of High-Level Waste (HLW) squarely in the American focus. Spent nuclear fuel - a major contributor to the total volume of HLW extant - has further been in the public eye as a result of a number of media stories concerning spent fuel in storage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station in Japan, particularly as regards the safety of the spent fuel at that site. While many dire predictions have been made about effects on the fuel by various mechanisms and resulting environmental consequences, all have been addressed prior to now in the extant literature; further, the site operator and the Japanese government (through its regulatory bodies) are continuing to both assure the public of the safety of the fuel, and perform continuing assessment of the fuel condition and structural integrity of all buildings on site. Even so, safety of spent fuel is on the public opinion radar screen, and now that it is, we find ourselves at a juncture in the United States where the extant Waste Confidence Rule has been thrown out, threatening the existing "as-is, where-is" condition for spent nuclear fuel.

The federal mandate to provide a permanent, safe, federally funded HLW storage facility has never been taken off the books, although the NRC recently halted its study on the use of a facility partly constructed at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the national HLW facility. This places the program in a unique condition, since at this moment the study is halted, no alternative site has been identified, and the District Court has indicated in its decision that the NRC's assessment of spent fuel "as-is, where-is" is inadequate in terms of safety analysis.

Statements by individuals familiar with the industry, as well as an official statement by the Nuclear Energy Institute, seem confident that the NRC will quickly be permitted to reissue its Waste Confidence Rule which will occur only after safety of spent fuel "as-is, where-is" is reassured by presentation of further evidence from the literature, or by new studies. Assuming that is the case, spent fuel will remain on the sites of nuclear generating stations as it is now (both in water filled Spent Fuel Pools when still very "hot" in terms of heat, and also in radiological terms as well as in Dry Cask Storage, out of doors but securely on site.) What will then have changed, however, is that the NRC will have been mandated to finish its study of Yucca Mountain (funding to the tune of $10 million extra has been approved by the House, relieving the NRC of any excuse that funding is an issue) and regardless of the adequacy of that site, the federally mandated storage for spent nuclear fuel off the site of nuclear plant owner-operators will finally have to be completed.

Many insiders feel that the Yucca Mountain site, for all of this, will prove inadequate and in fact unsatisfactory - not for reasons of space, but for geological reasons (primarily, water intrusion.) Should this be the case, the DOE (Department of Energy, responsible to build the storage) will be left essentially at "square one" in terms of a location for storage of the nation's spent nuclear fuel and other HLW material.

At this juncture, it is time to give a fresh look to what is really an older proposal; a program to establish multiple, regional HLW storage sites, owned by the federal government (either operated by it, or by private contractors) and sited adequately to provide safety and security. Further advantage could be obtained by use of dry cask storage exactly like that used now, or similar (as developed by the further work on the Waste Confidence Rule) from a standpoint of economics, for a number of reasons. Such a program might be called the Distributed Federal Repository Program, and a number of sites for storage of HLW under this DOE / Federal program could be established regionally in the United States (hereafter, DRS or Distributed Repository Site.) Such a program has a number of advantages over a single, gigantic, underground centralized facility such as that considered at Yucca Mountain:

1. Shipment of HLW to the DRS locations would be easier logistically than shipment nationwide to a single large site, and less expensive.

2. Storage of HLW out of doors, but under cover in Dry Cask type storage would allow for easy access for inspection, easier movement, and cooling ultimately by air.

3. Cask containers in an underground facility would no doubt be exposed to moisture, and perhaps could be exposed directly to water either from overhead or standing water. Outdoor construction, while exposed to elements, would be less likely to suffer deleterious effect due to water (either by dripping or by submersion in case of fracturing of an underground facility.)

Such facilities' siting could be considered differently from that for power reactors, since the release due to accident is both far less likely, and far less concentrated. Many possible sites already exist, in fact, having been cleared and licensed for nuclear generating stations that were never completed or never built. Any or all of those sites whose construction cancellation was due to reasons other than geologic or environmental could be considered, again, for use as a DRS for this program. Further, many other sites could be located.

A further advantage of this kind of program is that it could be expanded as needed as spent fuel inventory grows. A gigantic underground site such as Yucca Mountain has, by nature, essentially a fixed upper volume limit; with the licensing process for a DFRP using multiple DRS locations the acquisition of added space for storage would in fact be far easier.

Many other considerations would need to be made for such a program, but the DFRP concept has enough merit now, faced with the need for permanent repository for spent fuel and the likely inadequacy of Yucca Mountain, that this old idea should be given a fresh examination.

-Will Davis, 6/10/2012


2:30 PM Eastern 6/10/2012


  1. Charles Fosberg, an expert on spent fuel, talked with ANS Nuclear Cafe last year about economic incentives for a similar concept.


  2. How about contracting for private waste disposal sites for spent fuel, something like barnwell for spent fuel, and ending the fuel disposal taxes.

    Clearly the federal government is incapable of handling this issue in anything close to a timely manner. Plus the owner of the waste disposal site could eventually sell the spent fuel for reprocessing/rare earth extraction.

    It seems to me that this waste problem is a significant business opportunity if not for competing directly with a govt monopoly.

    1. I think that this might be worth a look, although I hasten to add that there's likely no company that would invest in fuel reprocessing were the government to allow it again, for the fear that the government would simply (at some point) turn around and ban it again, as did President Carter. Probably the best choice is to use identified and pre-studied sites as I mentioned and then contract civilian corporations (reactor vendors come to mind, and so do large oil companies) to operate the sites under DOE and NRC guidance and direction. This would theoretically be something like when Phillips Petroleum was responsible for much of the operation at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho.

    2. Perhaps no private fund would invest initially, but the ultimate goal should be to create a viable commercial solution to the waste management issue. this may take decades, and several acts of congress, but it seems like it would be better to eventually turn over all such operations to businesses rather than leave it at the whims of politicians.

      Short term the contracted approach seems like a good first step, perhaps then evolved into a purchase of services and finally complete privatization.

  3. Out of curiosity how many casks would be required for say a years worth of HLW from the current fleet of US reactors? How much space would each cask need, assuming other casks at at the same site?
    To me it seems much more sensible to manage the problem rather than hide and forget (for now)

    1. Here's the spent fuel from generating 110 TW-h -- about 1/7 of US annual nuclear generation. It has 43 casks on about half an acre.


  4. The US government already owns and operates sites that would be suitable for such a concept - the national labs. Those sites are operated by well established contracting mechanisms, they are large, have secure boundaries and generally have an established transportation infrastructure. The people who are there are already nuclear trained and could certainly be trusted to train any additional people needed for the operations.

    Utilities that have large sites for their current nuclear power stations can also enter the running as long term storage sites. If their local population complains about the waste being "forever" the utility can help the population understand that electricity is not a fad and that it will be needed forever as well. In other words, why even plan on decommissioning the sites - if the reactors approach their end of life, the right thing to be doing is planning the next generation of reactors.

    I cannot understand why so many people are so focused on the tiny fee charged on each kilowatt hour of nuclear generated power. Heck, why not double, triple, or quadruple the 1 mill per kilowatt hour fee?

    That would free up a lot of cash to get the job done quickly. The marginal cost of nuclear generated electricity is already the lowest among all reliable power sources (save federally built hydro dams) so nukes can afford to pay ourselves some additional fees to save our own business.

    Yes, the federal government has not lived up to its end of the bargain, but we should remember that WE are the government.

    Nukes need to take charge and ensure that people know that handling waste is not an unknown. It is not really that big a deal in the over scheme of the enterprise of generating clean, reliable, abundant power by splitting uranium (both natural uranium and that produced by breeding in a thorium reactor) and plutonium.

  5. Rod: An absolutely first-rate idea on using the labs. I agree- we need to take action, and this proposal is part of just that idea; you get ready quickly, and take action promptly. In this case, we need to be prepared for what might happen if Yucca Mountain is given the final blow. I myself hope that it is not and that all of the work done and money spent isn't all for naught. If Yucca does get killed off, what is the plan? I think the plan is the DFRP as basically outlined. And your concept of using the labs is an excellent addition to it.

  6. More of a market based approach would be to clear up the restrictions on ownership of the nuclear material. I think there are still some holdovers on this from the Atomic Energy Act of 1957. All of this comes from the desire for the government to control everything about nuclear weapons. Another policy solution would be to prevent political blocking of spent fuel reprocessing (more than an executive order). This would contain much of the risk with these capital projects. It would take years to implement, but would free up resources to something more than sit on perfectly good fuel.