The fact that that nuclear power offers many advantages over its conventional competitors such as oil and coal is undeniable. A single Kilogram of readily available uranium can effectively produce more power than 200 barrels of oil (Mazher 339). Scientists the world over are in agreement that nuclear power is one of the most viable options that can be used to combat global warming, a phenomenon that has increasingly become the subject of discussion in major world forums, including the G8.
Indeed, any plausible policy aimed at addressing climate change must make reference to carbon-free technologies such as solar and nuclear energy. However, the fundamental problem of nuclear energy is occasioned by how to deal with enormous quantities of deadly radioactive waste produced. This study evaluates various alternatives that can be used to deal with this problem, and comes up with waste reprocessing technique as the most viable option.
It is clear that nuclear power is destined to play a much more enhanced role if the dream of using clean and secure energy is to be achieved in the U.S. The country is one of the largest consumers of nuclear energy in the world. Presently, the sector serves over 20% of the country’s electricity needs (Mazher 340; Lagus 2).
However, the benefits of nuclear energy are often overshadowed by genuine concerns over the radioactive waste produced. Although this problem have persisted for almost 50 years, the government is yet to come up with measures aimed at effectively and efficiently disposing spent nuclear fuel and high-risk radioactive waste churned out by 104 commercial reactors at 65 nuclear power utilities across the country (EIA, para. 4)
Presently, commercial utilities are holding over 70,000 metric tons of commercial radioactive waste. The quantity keep rising each day as more nuclear materials continue to be used to supplement other sources of energy. According to available data, 2000 additional tons of nuclear waste is produced in the U.S. each year (NRC 23).
This radioactive waste continues to present grave hazards to present and future generations. As such, it is only imperative that the problem of nuclear waste disposal is comprehensively dealt with to reduce the immense dangers associated with the waste as well as stimulate the growth of carbon-free energy sources.
Stakeholders and decision makers have suggested various policy prescriptions that can be used to alleviate the problem of nuclear waste in the country. A good policy must be able to isolate the nuclear material from the environment for thousands, perhaps millions of years to come. One of the most touted approaches is the construction of geological waste repository.
In 2002, the Energy Department recommended Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as an ideal repository location for commercial nuclear waste after years of extensive geological studies on the location’s capability to handle such waste. Although former president George W. Bush assented to the concept and okayed federal funding for the project, the current Obama administration have developed cold feet over the whole project (Rogers, para 3).
Another approach involves reprocessing the nuclear waste. Stakeholders are indeed urging the country’s leadership to borrow a leaf from countries such as France and Japan and invest in reprocessing the radioactive waste into reusable energy. In this perspective, the government must undertake intensive research in nuclear reprocessing techniques that would efficiently and safely allow reusing of spent nuclear fuel to produce significantly less hazardous radioactive waste (NRC 116).
Another school of thought, led by the current Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, has proposed a new alternative towards dealing with the problem. They suggest that more funding should be channeled towards the development of new models of reactors that would be capable of completely burning the nuclear waste (Garber, para. 10). This recent approach seems to be gaining steam, though its practicability is still a matter of discussion.
Transmutation has also been considered as a possible alternative. In this process, the radioactive material found in the waste is altered into more stable forms. Properly used, the concept can be of great assistance in the management of nuclear waste in the U.S. as it has the potential to lessen the quantity of long-lived isotopes contained in the waste to safe levels (NRC 116). However, this new approach in nuclear waste management needs further exploration
The above are some of most mentioned alternatives that can be used to solve the nuclear waste problem in the U.S. However, each alternative has its own benefits and shortcomings based on the method used to evaluate them. There are many criteria used to evaluate the viability of one particular method over the other.
Cost considerations, risk assessments, environmental concerns, and social considerations can be used to evaluate the viability of the above named nuclear waste management methods (CIRA & NRC 33). This study prefers to use the risk assessment criteria to evaluate the two most talked about methods – geological repository and reprocessing – since nuclear waste is often correlated with potential risks and hazards. However, all the other criteria equally qualify to be used in the process of evaluating the methods indicated above.
According to CIRA & NRC, risk assessment is often used to either describe a process or a certain product of the process (65). It involves itself with the evaluation of quantitative or qualitative value of dangers related to the process or product.
In most instances, the assessment also takes into account the benefits accruing from such a process or product to be able to develop an effective approach for performing a cost-benefit analysis. Of late, risk assessment has become a principal public policy tool used for making strategies and choices aimed at offering solutions to pressing issues such as the nuclear waste problem.
Some of the hallmarks of risk assessment analysis include the yearning to utilize available scientific methods and evidence to inform choices, uncertainty that challenges the capability to typify both the enormity of the issue and the analogous benefits of the projected interventions, and a requirement for timeliness and authenticity that prohibits resolving fundamental uncertainties before decisions are made (65-66).
Yucca Mountain is located some 100 miles Northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada. According to DOE officials, the mountain site topped four other alternative sites that were evaluated for long-term nuclear waste repository when geological and environmental factors such as seismic constancy, hydrology, volcanic stability, and radioisotope transport were considered (Potter et al, para. 1-3).
The site had been comprehensively studied for close to 3 decades by scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, and was preferred because its water table is one of the deepest worldwide (“Los Alamos,” para. 1).
According to Liu, Sonnenthal, & Bodvarsson, the water table is 1,000 ft (300 m) below the ground, effectively allowing the construction of a geologic nuclear waste repository that is safely deep underground yet conveniently above the water table (217-218). The repository was to be located some five miles under the rugged Yucca Mountain. Groundwater is considered as the principal means by which nuclear material can be transported from a repository in the event of a leak.
Experts believe the desert-like climatic features found in the area will greatly reduce the chances of water percolating through the rock to corrode underground casks holding the radioactive waste. On average, the area receives about 7 inches of rain per year. Rather than soaking into the ground, about 95% of the precipitation evaporates due to harsh climatic conditions, effectively minimizing the risk of water contamination (Liu, Sonnenthal, & Bodvarsson 223).
According to experts, it is less risky to have a centralized nuclear repository in Yucca than to have 50 plus mini-storage facilities spread across the country. What’s more, the utilities running the nuclear mini-storage facilities has on more than occasion sought legal compensation from the federal government due to its failure to offer permanent disposal site for the spent nuclear fuel.
According to estimates released by DOE, the over 50 temporally storage facilities will cause the federal government $7 billion in legal settlements to the utilities in addition to the great risks they pose (Cawley, para. 3). Accordingly, consolidating these facilities into one place – Yucca – would be less risky and more cost-effective.
There are valid safety and environmental concerns arising from the Yucca project. First, a recurrence of volcanic and seismic activities in the area cannot be overly written off since a dozen small volcanoes are positioned within a range of 20 kilometers from the proposed site (“Los Alamos,” para. 3).
Volcanic eruptions have been reported in 6 of the 12 volcanoes within the last 1 million years, but are capable of happening again. The possibility of a massive earthquake hitting the area could have devastating consequences on the human population. Earthquakes are bound to occur due to the volcanoes discussed above and also due to the fact that Nevada is the most seismically active state in the country, after Alaska and California.
In 1992, a sizable earthquake measuring 5.7 on the Richter scale substantially damaged the DOE facilities within the vicinity of the repository site (CIRA & NRC 72). In essence, no one can offer a binding guarantee that the buried radioactive waste will not leak judging by the many years the material remain unstable.
Due to climatic changes, the probability of ground water sipping into the proposed Yucca repository is also real, even though the proposed repository would be located about 1,000 ft below the ground level and 1,000 ft above the water table (Liu, Sonnenthal, & Bodvarsson 218). The fact that geologists have said the chances of ground and rain water soaking into the repository are remote means that such chances do exist and can indeed happen. Such a scenario can have devastating consequences on the human population.
The mode of transporting the nuclear waste to the proposed final resting place put the lives of millions of Americans at risk. The waste is likely to be shipped to Yucca Mountain from the present temporary holding facilities dispersed across 39 states in the US by truck or rail (Davies 34). This is risky, not only to Nevadans but also to millions of other people living along the proposed transportation routes.
Authorities in Nevada believe that 85% of the radioactive waste would have to pass through densely populated and metropolitan areas to reach the final destination – Yucca. Nevada alone has a population of 1.6 million, with another 5,000 moving into the city every month. Around 35 million tourists visit the city every year (Davies 39). An accident during the transportation process would directly affect all these people in Nevada, with the possibility of affecting many more along the transportation routes.
Nuclear waste reprocessing has its own advantages and disadvantages based on the risk assessment criteria. The U.S. is known to utilize a ‘once through’ arrangement of nuclear fuel processing, a method that leaves in excess of 96% reusable uranium and plutonium in the fuel rods (Lagus 6).
While this method has obvious cost benefits, it leaves large amounts of potentially hazardous radioactive materials in the form of waste. This waste can further be reprocessed using advanced technologies to reduce its harmful potency while extensive research is undertaken to come up with more permanent strategies.
In reprocessing, one of the core transuranic wastes – Plutonium 239 – can be readily removed from the used nuclear rods and reused in nuclear power plants (NRC 87). The removal of this component has multiplier benefits in that the volume of radioactive waste is greatly lessened, the risk associated with the instable nature of the nuclear waste is greatly lessened, and more fuel is generated for the fuel reactors.
Some radioactive uranium and plutonium elements left after reprocessing can further be stabilized using a process called vitrification. During this process, the remaining radioactive waste is compacted into a stable glass log (NRC). In general, reprocessing and vitrification processes are able to considerably reduce the volume and long-term dangers associated with nuclear waste.
Besides the costs consideration, some experts and decision makers believe that nuclear waste reprocessing can be used by weird individuals to develop stockpiles of plutonium that could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons behind the government’s back (Lagus 1). Indeed, the risk of nuclear proliferation made the technology to be abandoned by the U.S. government under President Carter in 1977.
Nuclear waste reprocessing may also send the wrong signals to rebel countries such as Iran and North Korea to start reprocessing their own spent nuclear fuel. Such scenarios will definitely lead to enhanced possibilities of nuclear attacks especially in this age of religious fundamentalism and terrorism architects such as Osama bin Laden. Doubts have also been cast about the economic viability of reprocessing nuclear waste by some politicians and economic pundits (Lagus 6).
In solving the problem of nuclear waste in the U.S., trade-offs between the two methods discussed in this paper must arise since each has its own benefits and risks based on the risk assessment model. The nuclear repository facility at Yucca Mountain would definitely ease the problem of nuclear waste management in the country, but no solutions will be found. Indeed, burying over 70,000 metric tons of active nuclear waste underneath the ground in the hope of solving the nuclear waste menace boarders on absurdity.
Anything is bound to happen – massive volcanic activities, water contamination, and seismic activities as the quantitative data given in this paper clearly shows. Such activities are capable of occasioning fatal consequences. In waste reprocessing, the threat of nuclear proliferation as explained above is ever present. No one would ever want to imagine what Osama bin Laden and other like-minded characters would do with weapons grade plutonium harvested from unregulated reprocessing plants.
But management and regulation of reprocessing plants can be influenced by strict adherence to laws and procedures while natural occurrences, including natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic activities, cannot be influenced by such procedures whatsoever. In this perspective, reprocessing of nuclear waste appears to be the more plausible alternative when risk assessment criterion is used.
It is a well known fact that the glass logs of reprocessed nuclear waste cannot be stored on permanent basis (Lagus 13). Indeed, some decision makers argue that waste reprocessing would never be able to diminish the need for storage and disposal of nuclear waste. However, the risk assessment criteria used has clearly revealed that reprocessing is much less risky than storing the nuclear waste in temporary storage pools and dry cask storage facilities in the hope of transporting it to some repository like it is the case now.
In the event of a terrorist attack, the present waste storage facilities will cause a full-scale human and environmental disaster in the US. Available data reveals that over 161 American citizens live within a radius of 75 miles to one of the over 50 storage sites spread out across 39 states in the country (Mazher 342). It is even more dangerous to transport the nuclear waste to Yucca repository site as all the major transportation routes to the repository pass through heavily populated and metropolitan areas.
Any leakage during the transportation process could turn fatal. What’s more, the Yucca mountain repository can only hold around 120,000 tons of nuclear waste. Presently, the country has around 70,000 tons stored at major utilities, with the quantity rising by 2000 tons each year (Mazher). This therefore means that by 2030, the site will not have the capacity to hold any more nuclear waste.
As such, the only viable alternative for the U.S. right now is to invest more in research and development (R&D) of nuclear waste reprocessing techniques.
As this study has already discovered, the technique is capable of generating more power to feed the country’s ever growing energy needs, drastically reduce the volume of nuclear waste already piling up at commercial nuclear utilities, and, ultimately, reduce the hazardous nature of the waste by separating some of the most radioactive elements such as Uranium and plutonium.
While this is happening, extensive research should be carried out to come up with strategies of dealing with the low-level waste that remains after reprocessing. A case in point would be to merge this technology with the new concept of new generation reactors that are capable of completely burning the nuclear waste.
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