Will we actually get a place to store our nuclear waste?
The facility will be located in New Mexico and would store slightly used nuclear fuel until a final disposal facility is built — or until we build our new fast reactors that will burn it like Bill Gates is developing, or we recycle it into new fuel.
Fuel usually spends five years in the reactor, using up only 5 percent of its energy, but broken pieces of uranium atoms build up such that the fuel must be replaced. After leaving the reactor, the fuel usually spends five years in spent fuel pools of water, after which it can be passively cooled in a dry cask.
Dry casks can stay where they are for over a century, or can be moved to a centralized storage facility like Holtec is proposing. NRC concluded that storage in pools and casks is safe and secure. A study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory showed that interim storage would save $15 billion by 2040, $30 billion by 2050, and $54 billion by 2060.
Interim storage of spent nuclear fuel is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades at existing nuclear plant sites in America. Most of our 70,000 tons of used fuel is in interim storage in pools and casks at our 65 operating nuclear power plants, and at several sites that have been shut down and decommissioned.
Dry casks are typically constructed of one or more shells of steel, cast iron, and reinforced concrete to provide leak containment and radiation shielding. Casts typically hold 10 tons of spent fuel.
Now that Holtec’s application has been accepted for review, it will take several years to license and construct such a consolidated interim storage facility.
HI-STORE CIS is a subterranean storage system with a storage capacity of 10,000 canisters that can each hold about 12 tons of spent fuel. The first phase of the project is an initial 40-year license application for 500 storage cavities that can hold over 8,500 metric tons of uranium. Uranium makes up over 95 percent of the fuel. But the system could easily be expanded to hold all of our slightly used nuclear fuel.
It will take several years to complete the license review and then construct the interim storage facility. Holtec has the enthusiastic support of local communities in southeastern New Mexico, including the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.
Critics don’t like the idea of transporting slightly used nuclear fuel on roads, but we’ve never had a problem transporting nuclear waste and weapons over millions of roadway miles.
Our nuclear waste containers have been tested over the past 30 years by running into concrete bunkers at 80 mph, being dropped onto huge steel spikes, burned in jet fuel fires at thousands of degrees, and sunk deep in water for weeks. These things are as strong as humans can make them.
This project is indeed a temporary interim measure. The stainless-steel canisters are easily retrievable and ready for transport to whatever permanent solution is chosen, such as deep geologic disposal or burning in fast reactors. The canisters are designed, qualified and tested to survive for centuries and prevent the release of radioactive material under the most adverse accident scenarios imaginable for both storage and transportation.
As an add-on, Holtec is also seeking approval from NRC to use the heat generated by the nuclear waste, from just sitting on the pad, to make clean drinking water from dirty water from industrial processes.
Using waste heat for industrial processes and heating is common in Europe, especially Scandinavia. Venting so much heat to the atmosphere is wasteful and counter-productive if one cares about global warming. Holtec is also developing and testing a small modular reactor, the SMR-160, and like almost all SMRs, it will be walk-away safe, unable to melt down.
So dealing with the waste is really the last hurdle in a bright and clean nuclear future.
Jim Conca is a longtime resident and scientist in the Tri-Cities, a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation, and a science contributor to Forbes at forbes.com/sites/jamesconca.