Spent Nuclear Fuel Dilemma; Strategies Around The World

The problem of what to do with all this spent nuclear fuel has frustrated every country that has a nuclear power program.

With the US upcoming public meeting on spent nuclear fuel tomorrow we are taking a look at what is being done in various countries. This is an international problem. All nuclear countries should be looking at what has worked and what has not worked as we try to find solutions.

Germany: Germany thought they had a suitable site for their nuclear waste. The Gorleben salt dome was chosen largely for political purposes. It was in a lightly populated area near what was the East German border at the time. The technical requirements of the site quickly fell apart. It has a gas deposit below it. Removing the deposit would cause a considerable land shift. The salt dome was under a river and was not water tight. As the site became a political football it also became tied up in heated political issues. Other locations were considered briefly but politics and the fact that nobody wants a nuclear fuel site in their area has foiled other options. Currently Germany’s fuel is reprocessed in France and sent back to Germany. This enraged locals and anti-nuclear activists resulting in the massive Castor protests. Currently some of the spent fuel is being stored in casks at power plant sites, others in casks at the Gorleben site in a warehouse.  Germany is largely in the same situation the US is but with less land to find a solution within.

Japan: Japan gambled all their options on a MOX fuel reprocessing program. This involved shipping spent fuel to France or the UK. The other country would reprocess the fuel into MOX then ship the MOX and remaining waste back to Japan. Japan’s plan was to run this MOX fuel in their old GE Mark 1 reactors like Fukushima and eventually in fast breeder reactors like Monju and all MOX reactors like the one being built in Aomori. Japan’s plan failed to figure out what they would then do with the spent MOX fuel that currently has no technology to dispose of it. With Japan’s nuclear future in question and their being the main customer of the French and UK MOX plants, the UK plant closed and the French plant has lost a key customer. Japan also has no dedicated long term high level nuclear waste facility. Currently any processed waste sent back from European reprocessing centers is stored at Rokkasho in Aomori prefecture in above ground storage. Rokkasho is also housing spent fuel in pools at Rokkasho. The plan was to build a fuel reprocessing center there to create MOX to be run in the reactors in Japan. The reprocessing center is now in doubt. Most reactors in Japan currently house large amounts of spent fuel on site. Some in spent fuel pools. In the case of an older reactor complex like Fukushima they also have a large central fuel pool housing massive amounts of spent fuel. Fukushima also has a cask storage facility on site that holds a small portion of their spent fuel. The cask building at Fukushima sits in the lower portion of the plant and withstood the tsunami well. Sea water still did some damage and risks corroding the seals on the casks but casks all stayed in place due to the significantly engineered building. Compared to US cask storage “buildings” that consist of concrete caps or modular concrete slide in racks, the cask storage at Fukushima proved vastly superior. Had TEPCO used the “on end” cask storage like was used at North Anna NPP in Virginia it would not have withstood the quake and tsunami.

UK: The UK has tried MOX reprocessing but with Japan no longer being a dependable client they have shut down their MOX fuel plant that was deeply in debt. There is currently a plan for a deep geological long term storage facility in Cumbria but there are considerable concerns about the actual suitability of the site. The UK government has repeatedly reconsidered MOX reprocessing and some experimental reactor technology expected to burn plutonium. The experimental reactors are likely to be rejected as untested based on statements by officials and a new MOX plant would cost billions. A MOX program in the UK would run into the same problem as the one in Japan where there is still the problem of dealing with the MOX fuel at the end of use. It seems UK officials are struggling with finding a plan, one even suggested making MOX fuel and then just burying it.

Sweden: The country struggled with what to do with their nuclear fuel. They initially intended to phase out all nuclear power by 2010 but changed that policy and still run some reactors. They developed an interim storage facility at Oskarshamn and have since chosen a location for their deep long term storage facility at Östhammar. Sweden decided on this facility based on suitable sites and gaining public confidence. This confidence comes with considerable financial payments to the community. The deep facility in Sweden is 1,650 feet  below ground in bedrock and uses enclosed copper tubes to store fuel. The facility is below the water table and each canister is surrounded by bentonite clay ( a substance that can shield the waste). So far Sweden seems to be the furthest along of any country on a permanent storage plan.

Canada and Russia are currently looking for permanent deep repositories with none selected or under construction yet.

Adding to the US spent fuel problem is a little known obligation that the US must accept back all nuclear fuel sold to other countries. So there is not just the domestic fuel problem, there is fuel sold by private manufacturers outside the US under government agreements that the US people will now have to figure out how to deal with it. Some of these countries include Brazil, the Czech Republic, India, Japan, Mexico, Slovenia, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the European Union.

So far the options seem to be reprocessing that just delays the problem and possibly makes it worse, or a deep geological storage facility. Neither are great or easy options but worldwide seem to be the only options so far.

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