Most nuclear advocates, often including us here at Breakthrough, tend to dismiss the issue of nuclear waste, noting that “you could fit all of the nuclear waste in the US on a football field at a depth of less than ten yards.” But that answer is insufficient: just visualizing the amount of waste won't make the political and technical challenges of managing nuclear waste (or “spent fuel”) go away.
There is a larger divide here between the public and advocates. Polls consistently findthat the concern over spent fuel is among the top reasons the American public opposes nuclear energy. Nuclear advocates claim that nuclear waste is a purely political, not technological problem (as if the two were ever neatly separable). They argue that we could bury the waste at Yucca Mountain any time we chose, but silly political squabbles prevent it from being built.
But the political squabbles seem to stick around. Congress first designated Yucca Mountain as the sole national depository for commercial nuclear waste in 1987, more than three decades ago. With little forward progress in in the interim, six states have adopted moratoria on new nuclear construction until a disposal technology is available for spent fuel.
We need solutions for nuclear waste that are robust to politics. High-level waste, such as spent nuclear fuel (roughly 3% of all nuclear waste produced by volume) must be stored safely for thousands of years. In the meantime, nuclear power will remain a key source of American electricity for the foreseeable future. Since it provides the majority of clean energy produced each year in the United States, we will need to both preserve and expand commercial nuclear power in order to decarbonize the power sector. After thirty years of inaction at Yucca Mountain, and with no clear plan for the future, it’s time to start looking elsewhere.
In the absence of a geological disposal at Yucca Mountain, spent nuclear fuel has been stored on reactor sites, aboveground in dry casks. While generally safe, this isn’t the ideal technical option for long-term storage. Drawing on decades of research and projections, the World Nuclear Association argues that “deep geological disposal is widely agreed to be the best solution for final disposal of the most radioactive waste produced.” Building Yucca Mountain would entail mining out caverns with depths in the hundreds of meters. But what if we could go deeper?
Private entrepreneurs are still making headway. Deep Isolation, founded by the same team of climate researchers who launched Berkeley Earth, aims to bring deep borehole waste disposal to fruition in the next few years. They plan to use horizontal drilling to create small, deep passageways for spent fuel containers. At such a depth, containers of waste would be unaffected by seismicity, while risks of radiation or water quality would be dramatically reduced. Since the horizontal drilling technique has been proven in the oil and gas industry, the idea appears to be technically feasible.
Geology isn’t the only solution. In France, to keep the fuel cycle as cyclical as possible, spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed and reused. No facilities for reprocessing exist yet in the US, and reprocessing would not itself be a complete solution — it still requires waste transport, reactors able to utilize reprocessed fuel, and eventual disposal facilities for the byproducts of reprocessing. But many of the dozens of companies developing advanced reactors in North America are working on designs that utilize recycled fuel. It’s an option worth keeping on the table.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, there is the issue of public acceptance. Neither a new wave of nuclear deployment nor a more coherent spent fuel management regime can take hold if the public remains hostile to nuclear energy. On-site deep geologic storage, as Deep Isolation has proposed, might mitigate public concerns, but we shouldn’t expect them to disappear entirely. If and where a management method is adopted, the government should consider consent-based siting to pick the disposal site, as is done in Canada and Scandinavia. A voluntary and competitive process for site selection — like reverse auctions at the airport gate for giving up a seat — could help minimize conflict with the local community.
Recent support for advanced nuclear generation technology has come on a bipartisan basis in Congress. Similar broad support should be given for advanced nuclear waste management technology. Even if Yucca Mountain does get built, it still won’t be large enough to hold the spent fuel already generated in the US. The government will either have to try to build a Yucca Mountain 2 — with the decades of political uncertainty that would entail — or try something entirely different. In any event, the challenge of nuclear waste is not “solved,” and nuclear advocates must take public concern about the fuel cycle seriously. Meanwhile, if progress is made on waste management, state moratoria on new nuclear construction can end and the industry will have room to grow. Developing innovative solutions to the waste problem is severely needed for the past, present, and future of nuclear in the US.