How We Should Store Spent Nuclear Fuel

Before a natural disaster destroys another nuclear plant, we need to figure out how to safely and efficiently store spent fuel. The brainiacs at MIT offer solutions.

nuclear smoke

There are multiple nuclear reactors teetering on fault lines around the country, and most of them are surrounded by pools of water filled with still-very-radioactive spent fuel. The radioactivity from the now-exposed spent fuel at Fukushima is part of the reason why the situation there is so dire. Here in the U.S., a large portion of our spent-fuel storage pools are full. Worried yet?


We can blame this problem on our lack of a repository program (i.e., the Yucca Mountain plan) and national storage policy. Before a natural disaster destroys another nuclear plant–or, less apocalyptically, we run out of space–we need to figure out how to safely and efficiently store spent fuel because it’s not only dangerous, but it could also be used to make a dirty bomb, rendering it a prime target for sticky-fingered terrorists. MIT’s just-released Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle report gives us some ideas.

Dry Cask Storage

This technique involves storing waste in steel and concrete silos in areas with low population density–because nobody wants to live near nuclear silos (though some people inevitably will). If implemented in a central location, this technique could store all of our spent nuclear fuel in an area under 300 acres. A very dangerous, heavily guarded 300 acres.

Deep Borehole Disposal

Disposing nuclear waste in six-mile deep boreholes beneath the Earth’s surface isolates spent fuel from the environment. The boreholes are sealed with materials like clay or cement to protect them from the surface. This could be used for on-site storage, because you can dig a hole and fill it with concrete just about anywhere. If your knee-jerk reaction is that we shouldn’t put radioactive elements underground, pause to consider where we get that uranium in the first place.


New Reactors

Researchers could also work on building new reactors that can break up hard-to-dispose-of elements. But this would require research and development money that we don’t have–and in any case, the broken-up elements would have to be stored somewhere.

Store Spent Fuel In a Centralized Location

of storing spent fuel at nuclear sites where they could quickly spread
radioactivity in the event of an emergency, MIT recommends storing spent
fuel at centralized sites, starting with spent fuel from decommissioned
reactors. This is, of course, what the proposed Yucca Mountain
repository was supposed to do, but that project has been in limbo since
Obama shut it down and ordered a
commission to find alternatives.

Because we’ve already rejected their main recommendation, MIT suggests creating a new organization responsible for the management of long-lived nuclear waste (which would then hopefully come back around to the Yucca Mountain solution). This organization would include representatives from the government, utilities, state regulatory agencies, and the public. But considering that the Yucca Mountain controversy has been ongoing since 1987, the odds seem long that this group would reach any sort of consensus before our piles of spent fuel are released.


[Photo Credit: AmyZZZ1]

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more