Summary of the program on….
Reprocessing Nuclear “Waste”
Augustus Merwin provided the NSF with an informative and very timely presentation on emerging technologies that will permit the U.S. to transform nuclear spent fuel into a highly productive source of energy as well as reducing the amount of “waste” that will have to be stored for several hundred years. At the present time, the belief is that the residue from the production of electricity at nuclear reactor sites, as well as from defense production facilities, is useless and must be stored for thousands of years in safe and secure burial sites.
Merwin pointed out that nuclear “waste”–actually used nuclear fuel (UNF)–far from being dangerous and useless, represents a valuable energy source. UNF has an energy density roughly a million times that of gasoline! By reprocessing this material into new nuclear fuel, and pulling out the highly valuable albeit dangerous Plutonium (Pu), that quantity of Pu is capable of producing 100% of the energy requirements of the United States for the next 100 years! Furthermore, reprocessing can reduce the volume of UNF by 97% while decreasing the time that the material must be stored to just three hundred years.
This is revolutionary! Previous thinking had posited that all of the spent fuel would have to be stored forever as it was, creating an enormous requirement that even a site as big as Yucca could not handle. But by utilizing “pyroproessing”, a metallurgical technique that is both proliferation resistant and can reduce the amount of “waste” by 97%, the country could not only eliminate much of the volume of spent fuel, but produce a very valuable fuel that could be burned in liquid metal reactors in a safe and cost effective manner.
Merwin underscored that today the development of a full scale pyroproessing facility and accompanying burner reactor would address several national objectives. Pyroproessing can dispose of weapons plutonium from the former Soviet Union, reduce the volume and toxicity of UNF, and help the United States reemerge as the global leader in nuclear technology.
Merwin was asked to assess the viability of the Yucca facility, both for storage of the remaining fuel, as well as serving as a site for generating electricity. Merwin felt that building such a facility at Yucca Mountain has the potential to address our national security goals, most importantly safe storage of highly radioactive spent fuel and preventing proliferation of these materials. He noted that Yucca has scored well on all safety and security critiques it has been subjected to.
Gus was asked to speculate as to what benefits hosting the material at Yucca, reprocessing the UNF, and producing electricity would bring to the state. He felt that such a program would bring thousands of high paying jobs to Nevada, while bringing in federal money to advance our infrastructure and educational systems. He stressed that no new monies would be required, since compensation for the state and the construction costs of the proposed plants can be adequately covered by the existing nuclear waste fund (over $41 billion!).
In sum, Merwin said that by utilizing existing stockpiles of used nuclear fuel and modern technology, we can address several national objectives, bring a 21st century industry into Nevada, and generate clean electricity at zero expense to the nation. Nevada would become the world’s leader in nuclear energy technology; produce hundreds of MW of base-load carbon free electricity, and dispose of potentially dangerous materials. He added that very little water would be needed for this new technique—pyroreprocessing– long considered a major drawback to storage of spent fuel at Yucca.
We encourage our participants to study the attached PowerPoint carefully, and if you feel that this proposal Merwin has forwarded bears further attention, do let your state and Congressional representatives know that.
Augustus Merwin is a PhD candidate in Materials Science and Engineering at UNR on a fellowship from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Gus is the founding president of the UNR Student Section of the American Nuclear Society, and has passed the NCEES Professional Exam in Nuclear Engineering. He was recently named the recipient of this year’s “Regents Scholar” award at UNR—quite an honor!
The link for Mr. Merwin’s PowerPoint is below.