Used nuclear fuel storage in perspective

The existence of used nuclear fuel is not an excuse to decide against enjoying the benefits of further development of clean, baseload nuclear energy resources. Yet, one of the arguments often heard against building new nuclear energy facilities is that “there is no plan for the waste” or “there is no permanent repository.”

The plan for the past 30-odd years has been to store it. That storage location, since 1987, has been Yucca Mountain, a proposed deep geologic repository in Nevada. Yucca Mountain itself may never hold a single spent fuel rod, but another location will. Someday. As to the latter argument, that presupposes that once a permanent repository is named and opened, those making that argument will embrace nuclear energy. Likely?

In the meantime, used nuclear fuel is being safely and securely stored at nuclear energy facilities around the country with no environmental impact. No, it’s not ideal, but it’s not the crisis some would make it out to be, either. Even the New York Times got itself swept up in this mindset. The article by Henry Fountain, published Dec. 22 and found here, twice mentions that there are “hazards” associated with used nuclear fuel, while never mentioning what the hazards are.

Those who don’t care for nuclear energy like to make a point by talking about “the tens of thousands of metric tons” of used nuclear fuel out there. Indeed, the fuel is heavy. A small amount weighs a lot. But nuclear energy, as the most dense form of energy production, doesn’t require much fuel to generate a lot of power. And it doesn’t require much space to store its used nuclear fuel, either.

This graphic shows (to scale) the spent fuel storage site at Columbia Generating Station – and a corner convenience store 10 miles down the road. The Columbia site holds about half the nuclear fuel from 30 years of operation – or enough fuel to power a city the size of Seattle for about 11 years. (Note: Google Earth is a little behind and A Small Footprintthose empty spaces on the front pad are now filled.)

On a national scale, there are 80 sites that hold some used nuclear fuel, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. There are 151,282 convenience stores in the U.S., according to their national association.

The documentary Pandora’s Promise does a wonderful job of putting the total of used nuclear fuel in perspective. Click here to view the YouTube clip.

The Wall Street Journal published a blog post on used nuclear fuel that is worth a look. You can find that here. One of the contributors is Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center in Seattle. “No serious effort to reduce carbon emissions can be successful without nuclear power,” Myers writes. “Even officials in ultra-green Seattle count nuclear energy as part of the city’s ‘carbon neutral’ energy portfolio. Such obstruction (regarding used nuclear fuel) callously risks wider environmental damage.”

Environmental impact?

So another way to look at used nuclear fuel storage is like you would the kitchen garbage receptacle. We all have one in our kitchen. Some are out in the open and some are hidden, concealed in cupboards. We all have them yet we still prepare all of our meals in the same kitchen – just feet or even inches away from all that icky garbage! And Kitchen and Trashwe don’t think twice about it. Don’t even give it a thought.

Why? Because we know once we put something in there it will stay there. The germs won’t crawl out and reach our pantry or sneak into the fridge. We keep our kitchens clean and the garbage pail is where the trash goes.

With used nuclear fuel storage – the spent fuel is put in robust steel and concrete containers, each weighing about 180 tons fully loaded. They sit on specially designed concrete pads in secure enclosures, monitored constantly. They are rated against all forms of natural and man-made disasters. The casks have no moving parts: it’s all convection cooling. And that’s how they will remain until we decide to do something with them. No environmental impact. The fuel itself is a highly-sintered ceramic (no liquids). It’s not moving out of those casks on its own.

Energy Northwest has plans to build three more concrete pads similar to the two we already have – and that will provide enough space for used fuel storage through the life of the plant – 2043. The trade-off is 60 years of carbon-free, baseload energy. Not a bad deal at all.

(Posted by John Dobken)

8 thoughts on “Used nuclear fuel storage in perspective

  1. Great article.

    I’d bet you’re aware that a recent open letter in support of nuclear energy was signed by 75 conservation scientists. I wrote about the inevitable response on behalf of traditional ENGOs here in Australia – an email sent to each signatory asking them to withdraw support. It was asserted:

    “If nuclear lobbyists want environmentalists to support nuclear power, they need to get off their backsides and do something about the all-too-obvious problems such as the inadequate safeguards system.”

    The last three words could be any of the standard anti-nuclear soundbites; this time proliferation paranoia was focussed upon (likely because the biologists specific support for the IFR addresses SNF concerns). As you point out above, the presupposition is presented here that opponents would relent if this condition was addressed – when we’re all painfully aware that they instead would move on to the next intractable sticking point. To my mind this is far short of the grown up dialectic we urgently need.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I like to think that’s true. Round my way, after decades of nuclear fear mongering from an entrenched, conservative environmentalist demographic resistant to unbiased science, plus a recent accident to our north, and yet a survey last year still revealed distinctly limited opposition among South Australians (and we’re sitting on a significant proportion of the planet’s best uranium!).

        I think many people are waking up and wondering where all this clean energy is to come from. The difference is they are prepared to listen to one more set of experts (experienced nuclear energy professionals) than “environmentalists” have been…

        Liked by 1 person

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  5. Let me first say I do not have nuclear training, but as an engineer I have worked with critical energy systems (40y/interstate pipelines) design to assure reliability/security via sensible infrastructure design. Design is simpler of course, but rare transient circumstance do happen and are taken into account as we all want to keep operators/techs/maintainers from getting hurt and avoid losses to shareholders.

    The question I have not been able to find information on relates to the basic location design of the GE plant where spent fuel pools are located next to/above the reactors … which seemingly guarantee problems with spent fuel rods if there is ever a significant tail-risk issue with the core. (Or vice versa). Seeing the footage of the Fukushima explosion years ago, I was taken aback when I studied the GE plant design to find the storage pools were on the second floor and I have had this question running around ever since.

    I can understand the efficiency of having a crane to remove the fuel assy and go immediately to the pool, but part of me can’t help but envision a pool storage facility say 1000 ft away from the core via a concrete rail tunnel system. Granted the cost to place an efficient local transport system would not be inexpensive, but on the scale of capital at such a plant, it would seem a relatively small percentage given the short distance. (Maybe 200 feet would be sufficient to mitigate 99% of the risk?) With the potential for either the pool and core facility to have a problem that would threaten the other, seems like a risk worth considering adding the capital to separate them and only have half the size of the problem to deal with.

    Living downwind of the Browns Ferry facility, of the same GE design and appx 1500 metric tons of spent fuel next to the mile wide Tennessee River that is not out of reach of a potential New Madrid quake, I can say this question has crossed my mind more than once.

    Am I missing something here?

    Not trying to be the armchair quarterback. Serious question looking forward.



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