Practical Nuclear Waste Disposal

Waste has been depicted as the Achilles heel of the nuclear power industry but then too has as been, safety, water, cost and lack of evacuation planning.

Essentially the industry has a lot of problems but the focus of this piece is the spent fuel.

In 1984, a committee of the International Council of Scientific Unions on the geology of nuclear waste disposal concluded that century-long interim storage was essential and that disposal in subduction trenches and ocean sediments deserves more attention.

The sub-seabed approach was the subject of extensive peer-reviewed research, and as the late Henry Kendall, Nobel laureate in physics, who was deeply involved in the question of nuclear waste, its dangers and disposal, as well as a major nuclear arms control activist, called it a “sweet solution”.

In 1996, however, the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter was amended to prohibit the dumping of any radioactive waste at sea and ten years later the “Protocol” entered into force and can not be appealed for at least twenty-five years.

Sweden, however, which is considered one of the most advanced nations in the field has for decades been storing low and intermediate level short-lived waste from power plants, hospitals, and industrial users a kilometre offshore, under the Baltic Sea, at a depth of 50 to 100, and proposes a high-level repository for the same location.

The subductive waste disposal method, invented by this writer, too eliminates nuclear and toxic waste materials beneath the seabed, in repositories radiating from an access tunnel constructed into a subtending tectonic plate, where the material descends within the subducting plate into the mantle of the earth, which is also an approach not proscribed by the London Dumping Convention.

It is also one of only three options recommended by Yevgeny Velikhov of the Kurchatov Institute in a 2004 article, “World has no feasible project yet to liquidate nuclear waste”.  The others are the shipment of the waste to the sun by space freight ferries and the placement into the Antarctic ice cap.

Five years earlier, the Russian Duma presented a draft law intended to remove all the legal obstacles to the importation of foreign spent fuel into Russia because, as Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov, pointed out, spent nuclear fuel collection from other countries is a “$150 billion business” and “a golden opportunity for Russia”.

The plan was widely supported in the west but in July of 2006 Rosatom announced it would not proceed with the endeavour.

About 25 years earlier, in 1980, the IAEA-sponsored International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation recommended proposals “for establishing multinational and international repositories should be elaborated” due to their non-proliferation advantages.

“Centralised facilities for disposal of spent fuel and/or vitrified high-level wastes …. would reduce the diversion risk” and be more economical,” the proposal said.

The World Nuclear Association has identified a number of international nuclear waste disposal concepts including; a European regional repository, similar concepts for the Middle East and North Africa and the same for South East Asia and in 2016 a high-level commission in South Australia recommended the establishment of an international repository in that country, which the commission determined would generate more than AUD 100 billion ($77 billion US) in income in excess of expenditures.

The Australian repository would accommodate 90,000 tonnes of used fuel.

The IAEA estimates that 370,000 metric tonnes used fuel has been discharged since the first nuclear power plants commenced operation, with about 120,000 metric tonnes being reprocessed leaving a balance, 250,000 metric tonnes in storage or about 22,000m3 worth.

For 2016, the IAEA identifies 31 nuclear nations producing power from 451 reactors. But of these countries, only Finland has a repository under construction at an estimated cost of $3.9 billion to accommodate the waste of the country’s 4 reactors.

By comparison, the cost of the proposed US Yucca Mountain repository for 70,000 tonnes of used fuel for America’s 100 reactors is $96.2 billion or about $1 billion/reactor, the same as Finland.

So perhaps a rule of thumb for all the nuclear nations would be $1 billion per reactor but Elizabeth and Richard Muller threw this notion out the window this month with their revelation of their Deep Isolation technology that leverages recent advances in directional drilling to provide a safe and less expensive approach to the long-term storage and disposal of nuclear waste.

According to the company’s website, a two-mile-long repository can be constructed for under $10M, and hold 300 tons of waste, so the cost would be under $130,000 per ton.

By this writer’s calculation this should be $33,333 per ton, but even at the higher figure, this is over 10 times less than the US OMB estimate of $96 billion for Yucca Mountain that would hold 70,000 tons of waste.

But beside the tremendous savings, the real benefit of the Deep Isolation technology is safety. Yucca Mountain would emplace waste at a depth of about 300 meters, above the water table, whereas “deep isolation” would situate the waste a mile down, far below aquifers that have not been in contact with the surface for a million years or more and in geologic formations that have been stable for tens of millions of years compared to a region, that has witnessed volcanoes as close as 12 miles away, and as recently as 75,000 years ago.

Deep Isolation, however, is neither a new idea nor is it the most cost-effective solution to the spent fuel problem.

Spent fuel is a viable resource for the production of unconventional oil from tight and oil sands formations.  It is problematic because it is hot and degrades the geology of repositories that are necessary to isolate the ionization emitted by the fuel from living things.

The world nuclear organization estimates that decay heat per tonne of typical used fuel is about 1 kW per tonne ten years after the fuel bundles have been removed from a reactor.

The US Energy Information Administration reports that, on average, a kilowatt-hour costs about $.12 USD across the country and since 250,000 metric tonnes of waste is currently in storage, increasing by about 27 tonnes per year for each 1000-MW plant, this represents an annual $260 million energy resource in the right geology.

As Business Insider pointed out 8 years ago the nuclear assisted hydrocarbon production, invented by this writer, can unlock a portion of the 1.2 to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil within the Green River Formation of the United States and Metal Miner showed how the same  can produce bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands.

Green River Shale and the oil sands represent opposite ends of the oil spectrum.

The following schematic from the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, shows the progression of living organisms, through kerogen and then through thermal degradation and cracking to crude oil and then natural gas.

Kerogen is a mixture of organic chemicals with carbon chains as long as 215 in the case of the Green River Formation.

The shorter the carbon chains the more valuable is the hydrocarbon.

Kerogen is slowly heated as it is compressed by the accumulating overburden and between 50–150 °C it goes through what is known as the oil window and between 150–200 °C it turns to natural gas.

Spent fuel can provide the heat required to hasten the natural conversion of young kerogen into oil and what’s more, ionization can help to break down the bonds of the long-chain hydrocarbon molecules, making them more valuable.

Instead of relatively young hydrocarbon material, Alberta’s oil sands are the residue of oil that has been consumed by microbes over millions of years, leaving only the bitumen.

Producing this material is a matter of heating the bitumen to make it flow to a producing well and then cracking the long chains by the addition of hydrogen atoms at the breaks.

Here too ionization radiation can facilitate the breaking of the chains, and making bitumen flow is a less energy-intensive process than migrating kerogen through the oil window.

So what is preventing the United States or Canada for that matter, from solving the nuclear waste problem at less than 10 percent of the existing cost?

In Canada, it is a matter of political timidity and short-sightedness but for the US it is the Nuclear Waste Policy Act  of 1982 and now the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017, also known as the  “Screw Nevada Bill.” and the “Screw Nevada Two Bill.”

The original Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 authorized the DOE to consider Nevada, Washington, and Texas as possible repository sites but the DOE failed to carry out the necessary site assessments so in 1987 Congress designated Nevada as the only permanent U.S. nuclear storage facility, thus the “Screw Nevada Bill”.

But besides Nevadans, who have fought the 1987 decision to a standstill for over 30 years, others are being screwed as well, including:

  • nuclear power ratepayers world-wide who have paid billions of dollars into funds intended for repositories that are for the most works of fiction.
  • the citizens of communities in which spent fuel has been building up for decades for want of these repositories,
  • the inventors and their backers who have gone broke seeing their visions for solving the problem unfulfilled, and
  • lastly, the politicians and policymakers themselves who have repeatedly demonstrate their ineptitude at tackling this and the other major issues that have confronted them for over thirty years.

In her novel “Atlas Shrugged“, Ayn Rand explored the consequences of a strike by intellectuals refusing to supply their inventions, art, business leadership, scientific research, or new ideas to the rest of the world. “The men of the mind” instead gathered in Galt’s Gulch, which Rand modeled on the city of Ouray, Colorado, which fittingly is situated near the Piceance Basin, which is part of the Green River Shales.

Since the book, which was published in 1957,  recounts the founding of Galt’s Gulch in 2011 and events through 2019, Rand was strikingly prescient and perhaps an intellectual boycott is long overdue currently as well?

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