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Nuclear waste: the Swedish example

nuclear waste

If the United States is at a loss over what to do about nuclear waste, it may be time to check out the Swedish model. A symposium Friday at the annual meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in San Diego highlighted the success of the Swedish power industry in gaining public support for a geological repository for high-level radioactive waste.

The Scandinavian success comes in stark contrast to the U.S., where, for decades, spent nuclear fuel rods have remained in temporary storage at power plants around the country while Congress debated where to bury it, then decided on a repository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada and then changed its mind. The Obama administration, mindful of the fierce resistance of Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has opposed Yucca and in the 2011 budget slashed all funding for the Department of Energy-led project. At the same time, President Obama called last month for "a new generation of safe clean nuclear plants," and has budgeted $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power.

Like the U.S., Sweden, which gets 50% of its electricity from nuclear plants, has faced opposition in its three-decade quest to find a suitable burial site. Protests halted studies at several sites. And the Swedes had a high barrier to overcome: Under Swedish law, any municipality can veto a repository within its borders.

The key, according to Claes Thegerstrom, chief executive of Swedish Nuclear Fuel & Waste Management Co. was a methodical, deliberate process, with a dash of human psychological insight. Between 1977 and 1985, the private company, acting on behalf of the nuclear industry, studied the geological suitability of 12 sites. It then conducted scientific feasibility studies of eight sites. By 2002, it had narrowed the search to two municipalities, one south of Stockholm and the other north of Stockholm.

The industry worked closely with citizens groups, local politicians and civic groups all through the process, listening to their views. (A marked contrast, remarked one former Yucca engineer in the audience, to the U.S., where the public comment period to review 6,000 pages of federal documents was 60 days.) "We looked at how we communicated," Thegerstrom said, adding that the company "backed off" talking about canisters and materials, and any intimation that the waste was safe. Instead "we started with the basic message: This spent fuel is very dangerous. It exists, so we have to find a solution."

By the time the choice was narrowed to two candidates, Thegerstrom said, "some basic psychological things played a role. One was to have different options. In our case, we got to the point of having competition. That is a strong driving force." Each of the two municipalities came to see the repository as a source of jobs and international prestige and were "eager to be selected."

Another difference: The U.S. effort was led by the Department of Energy, with Congress pulling the strings, and canceling the original plan to have one repository in the East and one in the West, and instead anointing Yucca. "There were selection criteria" for geological, tectonic and geochemical suitability, said Allison Mcfarlane, a George Mason University geologist who served on the symposium panel, "but they were abandoned."

Thegerstrom said the national government in Sweden, once it enacted a law allowing a repository, maintained a hands-off policy as to its location, allowing industry to make the decision, in consultation with local government. "In Sweden, the industry is responsible," he said. "But in the U.S. the industry is absent from the nuclear waste discussion. That seems very strange." The Swedish underground site, in crystalline bedrock, is expected to be built by 2020.

Macfarlane, recently appointed to Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, said future decisions in the U.S. should include geologists "in a decision-making role" and allow communities to reject sites. Multiple repositories will be needed, not only because there is too much waste for Yucca alone, even if it were to be revived, but also, she said, "to restore a sense of fairness and share the burden."

The U.S. should consider "moving waste management out of DOE," Macfarlane suggested , perhaps into a public-private partnership. The big question, she added, "Can we resolve the nuclear waste issue before we have a large expansion of nuclear energy?"

-- Margot Roosevelt

GRAPHIC: Sweden's long-term high level nuclear waste burial site CREDIT: SKB

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Actually, ms Fernlund is mistaken. In the end of 2010, the Swedish Nuclear Fuel and Waste Management Company (SKB) will turn in the license applications for the final repository, based on the Swedish KBS-3-method described in the article.

The amount of nuclear generated electricity in Sweden was last year 37% to be correct.
The method of taking care of the waste 500 m under the ground is criticized, other methods to be investigated.

Not all the European waste is being reprocessed. Some of it is disappearing and ending up (like waste from S.Africa) off the African coast. Rightly or wrongly it is blamed for a decline in fish stocks. While nuclear power undoubtedly fuels much of Europe, it therefore also fuels anti-Europen hatred, and creates a dangerous sense of justification for everything from terrorism to piracy. (Mind you, the same could be said for the way US and European-based oil companies operate in Africa.) Anyway, don't get all feel-good, warm and fuzzy about the European example--there's a lot of P.R. to be disentangled. (And don't forget--we still have more than 50,000 leaking drums worth of nuclear waste in the trenches near the Farallon Islands, near San Francisco.)

Linda asked: Why aren't we reprocessing?
Well the basic reasons are that it is a horrobly dirty and expensive technology.
The process that some people call reprocessing is also called separation.
Used fuel elements (too radioactive to go near them, they would kill you within minutes) still contain more than 90 percent of the original uranium, plus some plutonium and a wild mixture of fission products, most of which are highly radioactive.
They get cut apart in "hot cells" behind a thick shield wall. The bits are then dissolved in strong acids, and the resulting compounds can be separated into uranium, plutonium and all the dirty rest.
The original idea behind this process was to get hold of the plutonium needed for the Hiroshima bomb.
Now think of a complex chemical plant, all the piping and machinery are exposed to strong acids and extreme radiation, and whenever something breaks you can't send someone in to fix it because the plumber would be killed by the radiation.
And of course, it makes sense to site this plant on a beach because you may ocasionally have to flush your pipes with water and you wouldn't want to pollute a river with the result.
So you will understand that a fuel rod made of MOX (Mixed OXides of uranium and plutonium) is much more expensive than a fuel rod made of fresh enriched uranium.
By the way, MOX fuel rods destabilise reactor operation, because the decay of plutonium can not be delayed by control rods like the chain reaction of uranium.
If you still think that "reprocessing" of spent nuclear fuel rods is a good idea, check the fate of real-world separation plants in the USA and Britain:

Spartacus suggested "paying the communities receiving the waste for accepting it".
Now of course, this is being done in Utah where an Indian reservation gets paid for the temporary storage of used fuel rods.
Lesson learned: the poorest county will be ready to sell its future - after all, the radioactivity will need a few decades or possibly many hundred years to be washed to the surface.
I would be happier if the site was selected according to the suitability of its geology.
Choose the safest place, not the cheapest one.

Reprocessing is a great idea. But so would be paying the communities receiving the waste for accepting it. The cost of paying for waste disposal should be part of the overall pricing model for nuclear power. If, say, revenue from storing waste under Yucca Mountain were able to finance the public education budget for the entire state, do you think it would still be unpopular? I wonder...

Why aren't we reprocessing?

The radwaste problem could be greatly mitigated and nuclear industry efficiency greatly enhanced by employing extensive fuel reprocessing and enhancement, and by employing breeder reactors all of which is hazardous but doable, I think. Some collective responsibility has to be taken by the public in dealing with problems like this which affect our economy and society so intimately. The mindless screaming politicians and others have to be shunted aside in favor of knowledgable engineers, geologists etc. and others engaging in a sober analysis and solution of major problems like this. By now I'd think people would be thoroughly disgusted by the political bs artists, attorneys and their libmedia hangers on who contribute nothing comprising instead nothing but an expensive social friction loss. People need to wake up.

There is a solution. Reprocess the spent fuel to keep control of what we do not wish to fall into terrorist hands. Waste which is not reusable needs to be dispersed as widely as possible, perhaps as a powder. Radioactivity is only dangerous when it is concentrated which is what we have been attempting to do!
My watch is radioactive, — that's why I can read it at night.

First, people in the USA need to reduce their energy consumption. Perhaps one day we will have an "Energy Police" force.... they would come to a business or residence and cite offenders. For example if you're not handicapped, yet use every electric convenience ever designed, you'd be way out of line, and cited. We do not need electric coffee bean grinders, electric garage doors, electric can openers, not to mention home theater systems and other energy wasters. Second, the USA has a lot more land than Sweden. We have enough landmass to tap geothermal energy, harness wind energy and sun energy. We NEED renewable energy NOW. Nuclear Energy isn't sustainable, and instead is extremely dangerous. It is also much too expensive to produce compared with other forms of energy. Perhaps there could be in the future a way to nuetralize the hazards, but at present there shouldn't be any proposed plans for additional nuclear energy plants anywhere in the world.

This choppy article may provide an alternative to the U.S. stalemate, though its difficult to read and understand.

Make no mistake: The Yucca Mtn. boondoggle falls at the feet of our elected representatives and represents another in a long-line of policy failures. I remain surprised that private companies still have interest in nuclear power as the U.S. continues to suffer under an irrational Rachel Carson aka Silent Spring Syndrome.

The left will KILL nuclear power if and when it gets the chance. They'd mothball our technical prowess, jack-up electric rates and on-and-on until the people rise up and fight back.

America, the epitome of hypocrisy always uses Sweden as socialistic society, but with a tilt to communism, when in reality, judging by democratic standards, Sweden is the paradise comapred to America. When I was there, I never saw a homeless person, a beggar; the cities looked like taken from a fairy tale, clean and organized with no apparent crimes and its citizens are or should be the envy of other nations. They are educated, speak several languages and they don't criticize bi-lingual education, they promote it. From what I saw and witnessed, Sweden looks more like a paradise than America will ever be. And all the citizens have health care. That has to be the icing on the cake.

The US and other industrialized countries are still using 19th Century electric power generation technologies in the 21st Century. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the US, only 4% of the nation’s electricity is generated by oil, compared with 52% by coal, 15% by natural gas, 19% by nuclear reactors and less than 10% by renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, etc. Today, 103 nuclear power plants account for 19% of the US electric power supply. One half of the US uranium that powers those plants comes from recycled Russian nuclear weapons Cold War disarmaments. There are 430 nuclear power plants operating in 31 countries worldwide. The energy from one pound of uranium is equivalent to 1.3 million pounds of coal energy. Nuclear power produces none of the greenhouse gases associated with global warming.
The hyper interest in climate change and global warming has also made nuclear power attractive. Nuclear power offers the possibility of large quantities of base load electricity that is cleaner than coal, more secure than gas, and more reliable than wind or solar energy alternatives. And if cars switch from oil-based fuels to plug-in electricity, the demand for power generated from carbon-free nuclear sources will increase still further. The nuclear industry’s image is thus turning from black to green. A recent UK poll showed 30% of the population against nuclear power, compared with 60% three years ago. A US poll in 2007 showed 50% in favor of expanding nuclear power, up from 44% in 2001.
Nuclear power expansion in the U.S. is a looming necessity. Let's stop the 20th-century obstructive politics, and enter the 21st-century of energy independence.

MAB is correct. France, Great Britain, Japan and a few other countries reprocess Nuclear Fuel but not the U.S. When nuclear fuel is reprocessed the amount of energy recovered is approximately 60 times that initially provided during the 1st core cycle. Currently we have all of this unreprocessed fuel stored onsite at all the nuclear power plants in the U.S. Considering our dependence on foreign oil and the effects of burning oil on our environment this makes no sense. Additionally, Yucca Mountain will not hold all of this unreprocessed fuel, but would have sufficient capacity to hold the remaining waste after reprocessing.

Nuclear waste is already here and there are rational solutions to storing it, as shown in this article. The biggest problem are irrational fears and emotional responses, encouraged and fanned by competing lobbies trying to get at limited federal funds. Nuclear energy is a proven and clean energy source that doesn't release any greenhouse gases.
For further insight I recommend reading this article published in ME magazine (a publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers):

In response to Mr. Leddy, I'm afraid the nuclear genie is already out of the bottle. Several unstable countries already have nuclear weapons and I highly doubt US development will make much difference to the likes of Iran. (Our brave ally Israel has already provided all the motivation they need in building its own bombs.) The US can either exploit nuclear power of lose more of our national competitiveness.

I work in the renewables sector and I'll give you an interesting statistic: 10% of US electrical power comes from decommissioned nuclear warheads which is more than all "renewables" combined.

Other countries have been reprocessing their nuclear 'waste' for years. The U.S. invented the technology; we simply don't do it because of politics ... see Jimmy Carter, 1977.

If we were to reprocess, we could extend the life of nuclear power by 100s of years. Also, if we were to recycle, the amount of waste would diminish to approximately 4% of its original amount. That amount of waste (which decays to nothing in a couple hundred years) would fit in the back of a pickup truck and can easily be buried ... this is including ALL of the used fuel generated for thirty years.

It's a concept that's understood and has been demonstrated for decades.

There is no rational solution to the nuclear waste problem. A repsonsible society can't reasonably expect to contain deadly radioactive waste for tens of thousands of years. What people often forget is how deadly the whole nuclear fuel cycle is starting with the mining of uranium and the disasterous impact on our water supplies. In addition, nuclear fission technology has and always will be a gateway technology to nuclear weapons development with Iran as the latest example. An expanding nuclear energy industry will lead to nuclear weapons proliferation, it always has, and the inevitable procurement of nukes or dirty bombs by rouge states and terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, President Obama is in denial about these fundamental truths. Conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy and clean air technology is the best path forward.


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