Nuclear power's waste problem

A 55-gallon drum containing radioactive waste.

KAI RYSSDAL: They're not exactly renewable, but nuclear plants do make enormous amounts of power on very little fuel. And no CO2 either. But there is that little radioactive storage problem. Geoff Brumfiel reports.


GEOFF BRUMFIEL: At one of the biggest nuclear power plants in the country, Peach Bottom in Delta, Pa., turbines spin 24-7, producing enough power for about 2 million homes.

Past heavy doors and radiation detectors is something that looks a lot like your swimming pool. Well, except for the 3,000 old nuclear fuel rods sitting at the bottom. Plant manager Mike Massaro:
MIKE MASSARO: Some of this fuel could be original fuel from our first operating cycle, which would be 1973, 1974 timeframe.

That's one of the catches of nuclear power, fuel rods have been piling up at the plants for decades with nowhere to go. The government-designated site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., was supposed to open in 1998. But technical snags, lawsuits and politics have kept that from happening. At Peach Bottom, it's gotten so bad they've started storing waste out back in concrete casks.

STEVEN KRAFT: The Industry is very frustrated.

Steven Kraft works at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main nuclear lobby in Washington.

KRAFT: We are in the business of making electricity, and not in the business of storing spent fuel.

So the Energy Department is proposing something else: recycling. Well, that's what they'd call it if they were trash collectors, but they're nuclear engineers so they call it reprocessing. Adam Levine is spent-fuel chief at Excelon, the company that manages Peach Bottom. He says that by dissolving the old fuel in acid and extracting unused isotopes . . .

ADAM LEVINE: There's an opportunity to use more than 90 percent of the weight in new fuel.

A few other countries like France already reprocess. And now the White House wants to create a global recycling network. We'll sell fresh fuel to smaller countries, and then buy it back for reuse in our own reactors.

The investment community likes the idea, but it doesn't come cheap. The U.S. would need to spend billions on a full-scale facility. Next year, the Energy Department wants to spend $400 million just for R&D.

CHRIS PAINE: The proposal is a huge, unaffordable excursion into nuclear-state socialism on a global scale.

Chris Paine is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. He says that reprocessing just doesn't make economic sense.

PAINE: All the calculations show that recycled fuel is more costly than the most pessimistic predictions for the future of conventional nuclear fuel.

And there's another problem. The U.S. reprocessed fuel decades ago, but we didn't use it for electricity. Again, Chris Paine:

PAINE: This is the process that was used to separate material for U.S. nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration is proposing a way to make it harder to create bombs with the old fuel, but many in Congress are still skeptical about the plan and the example it sets. Especially at a time when North Korea and Iran are pursing weapons technology. So, for now, the fuel will likely stay put.

And in the meantime, Exelon says it's going to cost about half a billion dollars over the next decade to store waste at Peach Bottom and its 16 other plants.

In Washington, I'm Geoff Brumfiel, for Marketplace.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...