06/07/2011 05:59 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2011

The Nuclear Option: Waste Plan or a Wasteland?

Crossposted with National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge Blog and

While we debate about building new nukes, waste builds -- and builds up -- at the ones we already have.

2011-06-07-Fuel_pooldoe.jpg The United States is home to 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, much of it stored in storage pools like this. (Department of Energy)

The tsunami-induced nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex has sparked renewed debate about nuclear power's future. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland have decided the risk ain't worth the juice and have announced plans to end their nuclear power programs. No such decision appears imminent in the United States although it is unclear if any new plants will get built.

History as Prelude?

Should nukes be part of our energy future? That question will surely be debated for some time. But what about the spent fuel from reactors? Where is that in the debate?

The leaked radiation at the Fukushima plant didn't come from the reactors alone. A failure to keep water circulating in pools storing spent fuel rods led to meltdowns, fires, and ultimately sizable releases of radioactivity. And today, some 87 days after the disaster began, plant operators at the Tokyo Electric Power Company are still struggling to stabilize the spent fuel pools.

The storage pool failures at Fukushima are highly relevant to America. The United States currently has about 65,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. More than two-thirds of that waste is stored in storage pools much like those at Fukushima. The rest is locked up in dry cement casks that are generally deemed safer because they are air-cooled (not water-cooled) and less susceptible to sabotage.

Now, two new reports -- one from a subcommittee of President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future and the other by Robert Alvarez, a former adviser at the Energy Department now a scholar at the Institute of Policy Studies -- recommend that we can and should do better.

We Didn't Plan It This Way

Initially, all our spent fuel was supposed to be reprocessed for use in breeder reactors and so there'd be no need for long-term storage or disposal. But because of proliferation concerns and economic considerations, reprocessing was abandoned (under President Carter). In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act laid out a new plan: In exchange for a fee collected from nuclear power plant operators, the federal government agreed to take the fuel off the hands of the power companies for permanent storage/disposal.

That, of course, did not happen; the country has simply not had the political will (I'm pretty sure we have the technical know-how). And so, in the words of the Blue Ribbon Commission, "current storage arrangements have evolved in an ad hoc fashion," and "with a few minor exceptions, all commercial spent fuel is being stored by default at the sites of the reactors where it was generated," awaiting the government to decide what to do.

65,000 metric tons of spent fuel in the United States ... most of it, according to Alvarez, in pools containing "some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet" ... stored in an ad hoc fashion. With more on the way. Our current fleet of 104 commercial nuclear plants generates an additional 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel annually. With Obama's cancellation of the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, there's no end in sight.

Time for Change

The Blue Ribbon Commission's draft report does not find the current storage system unsafe per se, but recommends that a more efficient arrangement would involve establishing "one or more consolidated interim storage facilities," where spent fuel could be stored in dry casks for a period of decades to a century or more, awaiting final disposal, including possible reprocessing.

Alvarez is a lot less sanguine. He notes that several fuel storage sites are in seismically active earthquake zones) and others, such as the Indian Point facility in New York (about 38 miles from Manhattan), are near high-population areas where an accident could have tragic and economically devastating consequences. Alvarez calls for a 10-year program to move spent fuel into dry cask storage. "The cost of fixing America's nuclear vulnerabilities may be high," he writes, "but the price of doing too little is incalculable."

This isn't the first time experts have called for upgrading our system for storing spent fuel. (See here and here.) Not much has ever happened on this front, so it remains to be seen what, if anything, will happen now.

I don't know about you, but "spent nuclear fuel" and "ad hoc" don't mix well in my book. So here's a simple proposal: Until we decide on what to do with nuclear waste and then show some follow-through, let's shelve all talk of new nuclear plants. Call it the Waste Plan Before New Nukes Plan.