Nuclear Waste - Dry Storage

This piece was written in the 1980s, and is even more relevant than when it first appeared.

We all know that nuclear power produces radioactive waste, This is often seen by the media as a reason to make misleading statements about its safety.

It is not usually realised that

1) the volume of nuclear waste produced is tiny,
2) we have the necessary technology to store it, safely, above ground, for as long as is necessary.

So - here we go - a paper written by a nuclear design engineer:

The management of irradiated fuel has been approached by various countries in different ways:

Great Britain and France both pursued a policy of reprocessing since the early days of nuclear power, starting with Magnox fuel and more recently building new facilities to deal with irradiated oxide fuels. Both countries offer these facilities to overseas customers, such as Japan and Italy.

In the USA, reprocessing for the civil reactor programeme has not been available for many years.

Canada has always pursued a policy of long-term storage at the power stations; it does not reprocess.

Several European countries are currently proposing once-through cycles, storing irradiated oxide fuel unreprocessed in appropriate repositories.

The primary advantages of reprocessing are:

a) to separate materials (e.g. plutonium) that can provide fuel for future reactor systems
b) to segregate the long-lived fission products for eventual safe storage, i.e. vitrification.

The main disadvantage is the extremely high cost of the process which in the UK is currently charged to the plants in operation. It could be argued that this cost should not be superimposed upon the operational cost of current reactors. The addition of these reprocessing costs to the present fuel costs increases significantly the generation cost with no benefit to the current power programme.

It would appear to make sense to reserve the option on whether to reprocess or not by storing the irradiated fuel compactly and safely until it can be seen whether the potential fuel value of the plutonium will be realized.

Whatever method of storage is chosen, and whether it be for intermediate or long-term, I believe a comment made by Mr. Bob Davidson at a meeting of the American Nuclear Society in Washington in 1980 still to apply. He said the nuclear industry "wants innovation like a hole in the head".

When comparing the many storage options that are on the market, there are many basic questions to be addressed.

I have selected six that I believe to be most important:

1. Has it been done before? Have the technological principles and safety features been demonstrated and what is the operational experience?

2. Can it be built in an acceptable short timescale?

3. How much did it cost to build, and what are the operational costs?

4. Can the fuel be easily retrieved?

5. Can the condition of the fuel and its containment envelope be easily monitored?

6. Are the fuel temperatures in storage such that an inert gas is necessary for satisfactory storage, or is the cooling arrangement such that lower temperatures allow air to be used as the containment envelope?

In the UK we have had significant experience of the design, construction and operation of several dry store facilities.

Reproduced by permission of the author

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