The Vine

Where The Nuclear Waste Goes

By

Brendan
Koerner asks, If not Yucca, where? Where do we stash all the
nuclear waste? For the time being, metal casks scattered around the country are holding the existing waste, but those casks only last about 100 years, and we need a
sturdier, longer-lasting option. So, if Nevada manages to tie up Yucca in lawsuits
for all eternity, that leaves us with...


There are several promising techniques in the pipeline,
starting with accelerator-driven transmutation of waste, in which proton
beams are used to reduce a substance's half-life. ATW is a favorite of Sen.
John Ensign, R-Nev., who gives it a shout-out on his anti-Yucca
Mountain page
. But skeptics claim that ATW is far too expensive and
laborious, and will never be able to handle anything more than a token amount
of waste.

There is also great interest in using microbes to either trap dangerous isotopes in calcite deposits or cleanse uranium from groundwater. And chemists at Northwestern University recently announced that
layered metal sulfides show
promise
for the remediation of certain types of nuclear waste.

While these cleanup techniques are at least several
decades away from commercial viability, we already know how to recycle nuclear
waste. Nuclear recycling is every bit as controversial as Yucca Mountain,
however. Several European nations currently use the PUREX process, in which spent fuel is bathed in nitric acid
so that uranium and plutonium can be extracted. But PUREX isn't used in the United States
because of its high cost, as well as the perceived risk of weapons
proliferation.

Many in the American nuclear-power industry favor the
development of UREX+, a recycling process that ostensibly addresses these
concerns. The end products could then be used in advanced burner reactors. But UREX+ has plenty of critics (PDF), who contend that the process is
neither as clean nor as proliferation-resistant as it's cracked up to be.

Or we
could clasp our hands together and pray hard for the onset of nuclear fusion. But, hold on. How does France
deal with this problem? French reactors reprocess their spent fuel, which reduces
the total volume of waste. (On the downside, doing so creates plutonium and ups the risk of
proliferation, while the reprocessing plants have an unfortunate habit of leaking radioactive liquid onto Normandy Beach and into the Channel.) Still, even the fractional amount of waste that remainsa French family of
four generates "a glasslike nugget the size of a cigarette
lighter" every few decadesadds up, and has to go somewhere.

French people seem to trust nuclear power more
than Americans do, and gaze a bit more fondly on their scientists and technocrats. But that doesn't mean they enjoy living near radioactive-waste repositories any more than
your average Nevadan. According to this Frontline report, in the late '80s, French people in the countryside grabbed their pitchforks and rioted
over a proposal to bury the waste in rural areas. So the government came out and announced that, no, okay, it only wanted to put the waste
there temporarilyand would watch over itrather than
bury it for good. That seems to have appeased the rabble for now, but the government's still noodling over a longer-term solution (deep-underground burial looks like the top prospect). Meanwhile, Greenpeace has charged France with fobbing thousands of tons of waste off on  countries like Russiaand where it ends up remains murky.

--Bradford Plumer

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