No to spent fuel 'disposal'

3 July 2012

There is no final disposal facility for spent or used nuclear fuel in operation today. And in my view there should not be one; at least not while nuclear reactors continue to operate. There are three main reasons.

First, countries have been unable to maintain a consistent fuel cycle strategy in the past (see pp. 43-4). So, even if they invest in the development of a deep geological disposal today, there is no guarantee this will be their position in the future. This is backed up by the fact that many facilities designated for ‘final disposal’ are designed to be reversible.

Second, there is the ever-changing question of inventory, which needs to be predicted in order to design a repository. How can this ever be estimated accurately while reactors continue to operate and back-end fuel cycle policies evolve?

Finally, there are the advances in dry storage technology to consider, which mean spent nuclear fuel can be stored safely for 60+ years. So why build a repository at all?

The USA’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said in a report earlier this year that a disposal solution for spent fuel and high-level waste was ‘inescapable’ and independent of policy debates. I agree that countries need final disposal facilities for nuclear waste. The key word here being waste, defined as a material no longer useful or required after the completion of a process. Spent fuel should not, in my opinion, be treated as a waste when it could be a valuable asset in future years if the economics of reprocessing improve, for example.

One country that is keeping its options open is the UK. It reprocesses spent fuel from its Magnox and advanced gas cooled reactors, but is not expecting to reprocess any from new nuclear power stations. The government says however that ‘should such proposals come forward in the future, they would need to be considered on their merits at the time.’ But wouldn’t leaving the option open like this surely make it impossible to pursue the development of the planned geological repository?

The first spent fuel from current UK reactors is planned for disposal in a UK geological disposal facility (GDF) from 2075, with fuel from new reactors around 2130. However, if the programme is accelerated as is currently under consideration, the GDF could take spent fuel from new reactors as early as 2045 (when they may still have over three decades of operation still to go!)

Meanwhile, we are capable of storing spent nuclear fuel in interim storage facilities fuel for up to 60 years, and probably beyond. I say that countries should continue with indefinite storage until they know exactly what they want to do regarding reprocessing. This is not simply leaving the ‘waste’ for future generations to deal with, because as long as nuclear power plants continue to be built and to operate, there will always be some spent nuclear fuel to manage.

Even if repositories are built, they will eventually reach capacity and the process will have to start all over again, perhaps at a less-ideal site. This could happen in Finland, where the planned repository has only been designed to hold spent fuel from the four operating reactors, plus two additional units at Olkiluoto and a further unit at Loviisa. TVO and Fortum, which operate the current reactors, maintain that the facility cannot be expanded safety to accommodate used fuel for Fennovoima’s plant, despite government pressure to make a deal.

If countries waited until their nuclear power programmes ended before deciding on the ‘final disposal’ of used nuclear fuel problems like this could be avoided. First, countries would know the exact inventory for disposal. They would not have the ‘reprocess-or-not’ question hanging over their heads. And, perhaps by the time ‘waste’ nuclear fuel is ready for disposal advances in reprocessing or recycling technologies will mean there are better options. America’s BRC predicts this won’t happen for the next several decades, or longer. But what’s the rush? We have been dealing with spent nuclear fuel safely for the past five decades without a geological repository; we can continue for five more.

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