Post-Yucca nuclear waste strategy group

01 February 2010

America will develop a new strategy for long-term waste management under a 'Blue Ribbon' commission. Used nuclear fuel recycling will be one of the options on the table for the group.


The panel is tasked with developing a new strategy for the USA to deal with high-level radioactive wastes from commercial power plants as well as military activities. It comes after the abandonment of a plan to dispose of the materials inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada which faced stiff opposition from politicians within the state.


President Barack Obama campaigned on the opinion that Yucca Mountain was 'not an option' and followed through in February 2009 by cancelling the project's funding. But the need to manage these wastes for the long term remains and it is the new panel's job to decide a strategy for that - if not a specific site.


A memorandum from Obama on 29 January confirmed the review would "include an evaluation of advanced fuel cycle technologies that would optimise energy recovery, resource utilisation and the minimisation of materials" - in other words, reprocessing and recycling. This is already carried out commercially in France and the UK for a number of European and Japanese customers while Japan is commissioning a plant of its own and China has moved to import one from France. A positive view on this practice would end a ban on US reprocessing brought in during the 1970s by President Jimmy Carter.


Support for reprocessing and recycling has been growing in recent years among the US industry, which has realised that the savings in the volume of waste are

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future 


The commission's membership represents "an exceptionally well chosen group," according to US trade group the Nuclear Energy Institute.


The 15 members are:
Lee Hamilton (co-chair),
Brent Scowcroft (co-chair), Mark Ayers, Vicky Bailey, Albert Carnesdale, Pete Domenici, Chuck Hagel, Susan Eisenhower, Dick Meserve, Jonathan Lash, Ernie Moniz. Allison Macfarlane, Per Peterson, John Rowe and Phil Sharpe. 

invaluable when considering a used fuel stockpile as large as the USA's - over 70,000 tonnes in total. Reprocessing can reduce waste volumes by 60%, while recovered uranium and plutonium can be used again in fresh fuel.


Carter's ban was overturned by President Ronald Reagan but commercial confidence did not return on reprocessing. Consideration of the nuclear fuel cycle has taken place, mainly under the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI). One of AFCI's conclusions was that multiple large disposal sites in the USA would be unfeasible.


This was expanded upon by President George Bush's 2005 proposal of a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), with fuel leasing, reprocessing, recycling and a fleet of advanced reactors to gain further energy while destroying certain waste products. It is not clear how this will be considered by the commission.


One issue that will not be on the table is the exact location of any eventual waste facilities. The 'Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future' is only to consider strategy, not implementation. One element of strategy could be a recommendation for one or more interim stores to contain used nuclear fuel for decades until a permanent disposal facility is ready.


Back to basics


The new process mirrors somewhat the work of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) in the UK, which was established to find a new route for waste disposal after a government minister blocked the previous plan for geologic disposal.


After considering everything from ice-sheet disposal to firing waste into the sun, CoRWM concluded that geologic disposal was the best solution for high-level wastes after all. However, that back-to-basics recommendation gave the government legitimacy for the current site-selection process based on the voluntary participation of communities.


A major criticism of the Yucca Mountain project was that the selection of the site was dominated by politicians, rather than local people and scientists. Initial plans foresaw two such facilities - one in the eastern states, and one in the west. Several sites were given preliminary evaluation and identified as feasible locations for the project, but a Congressional vote directed the Department of Energy to focus on just one: Yucca Mountain, Nevada, where a powerful and persistent force quickly arose from state authorities to block progress.


Obama and his energy secretary Stephen Chu said that the cause of the re-think was that scientists and engineers had learnt "a great deal about effective strategies for managing nuclear material" since the Yucca program was envisaged.

Researched and written

by World Nuclear News