Japan’s Lesson: It’s Time to Deal with Spent Nuclear Fuel

There have been three main barriers to the construction of new nuclear power facilities: high construction costs, concerns about plant failure leading to a meltdown, what to do with the spent nuclear fuel (usually called waste).   The second problem has been brought to the fore with the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant resulting from the horrific earthquake and subsequent Tsunami.

Even if the leaked radiation doesn’t ultimately result in significant illness or loss of life (and of course I hope it doesn’t), the questions raised by the still ongoing problems at this plant have only increased fear of nuclear power and almost certainly the costs involved in developing and operating an new facility.  Since costs are already steep compared to other alternatives for electric power production it is doubtful more than a few of the nuclear plants currently in planning or development will be constructed in the next decade (and maybe ever in their current form). 

Whether or not we ever build or operate any additional nuclear power plants in this country, the third issue, what to do with the spent fuel, remains.   

As David T. Stevenson, Director of the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Cesar Rodney Institute notes, despite all that has been reported about the problems with the multiple failing reactors at the Japanese plant, the most troubling and immediate potential hazard stems from the loss of water cooling the plant’s  stored spent fuel rods.  Stevenson states that, “The nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan shows, beyond a doubt, the time has come to open existing, secure nuclear storage facilities in the United States to avert a similar tragedy.  Stored fuel is the biggest concern in Japan.  We currently store spent nuclear fuel rods at power plants in above ground facilities in secure Transportation, Aging, and Disposal Canisters (TAD).  These canisters can be shipped and stored without opening them.  There are currently about 71,000 metric tons of spent fuel and high level radioactive waste stored at 121 nuclear power plants and non-military government sites.  All of this waste, minus shipping containers, could be stacked forty-one feet high on one football field.”

Stevenson proposes three solutions: Storage at Yucca Mountain, Storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WHIP), and recycling. 

Interestingly, these are the same three solutions I examined in a paper released March 2010. 

I agree with Stevenson, the time for talk is past, now is the time to either start shipping spent nuclear fuel to the permanent storage facilities which science has already demonstrated time and again to be safe, or to recycle the spent fuel for continued operation of currently existing facilities and to reduce the overall waste stream that ultimately needs to be stored. 

As Stevenson, explains, both the money and the facilities exist to handle spent nuclear fuel —  all that has been lacking is the political will to act.  Hopefully, Japan’s nuclear crisis will serve as a forceful prod getting U.S. politicians to act.

Comments (6)

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  1. Simon says:

    Great post–which of the two options is more cost-effective over time? How often would there be a need to transport waste?

  2. Larry Harmon says:


    Great article.

    I enjoyed talking to you about a month ago.

    Keep up the great work.

  3. Alexis says:

    Interesting article, these are all great solutions and important to discuss.

  4. Jean says:

    Interesting article. We’ll have to wait and see what Washington ultimately decides to do. A shame that it takes travesties to shock them into concern, and even still, there is no guarantee that they will act.

  5. Hugh says:

    More could be said about the history of recycling spent nuclear fuel. The USA had the lead in recycling spent control rods in the 1970s until Pres. Jimmy Carter issued an executive order closing the recycling facilities. France recycles all spent nuclear fuel. The result is a small volume of less “toxic” waste that can easily be stored. Japan followed our lead on nuclear energy so part of the problems now are the unintended but predictable consequences of Jimmy Carter’s executive order. Much of the problem in Japan involved the overheating of stored spent fuel rods. I don’t think we can wait for Washington to make a decision without being pressured by citizen groups. They don’t have the knowledge or the “cojones” to make the decision themselves.

  6. Big D says:

    Good article highlighting the immediate effects of cronyism and radiophobia. Recycling nuclear waste isn’t done partly because it’s cheaper to use fresh U than reprocess the “spent” fuel rods.

    The “spent” fuel rods have 95+% of the U still there–the Pressurized Water Reactors now in service are that inefficient.

    Meanwhile, engineering of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs) based on research done at Oak Ridge in the 60’s is proceeding–in China. LFTRs have the ability to consume the “nuclear waste”

    Oh by the way, LFTRs are safe (incapable of leaking, melting, or exploding), efficient (99% of actinides consumed), clean (no emissions, no CO2, tiny amt of short-lived waste), economical (after we defeat the regulatory and lawfare juggernauts fueled by radiophobia) and useful beyond electicity (process heat, desalinization, fuel generation, medical isotopes).

    NO CO2