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Synthesis/Regeneration 35   (Fall 2004)

Prevent Reprocessing—Vitrify Now!

by Art Myatt, Green Party of Michigan

Spent nuclear fuel, as it is removed from reactor cores, is an extremely hazardous material. Intensely radioactive, it is typically stored under water—30 feet or so of water—for some years, until the short-lived radioactive elements have largely burned themselves out.

Then it is possible to store it dry, with only “minimal” danger of a meltdown so long as the rods are kept separated. Currently, most spent fuel, wet and dry, is stored at the reactor sites where it was used. Wet or dry, it is still quite dangerous, but generally we pretend this is the best we can do with it.

The plan, according to the Bush regime, is to prepare a man-made cave`rn at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, to receive it in a decade or so. When the mountain is ready, spent fuel will be shipped from all over the country to a giant vitrification plant in Nevada near the storage site. The plant will make big ingots of borosilicate glass, much like ordinary window glass, with the spent fuel stirred into the melt.

The ingot will be suitable for long-term storage. The radioactivity will not be made less, but it will be dispersed in the glass and diluted, so it will be less intense. The spent fuel rods contain uranium and plutonium oxides, which tend to be finely divided powder easily dispersed by a breeze. Once dissolved in the glass, they will not be scattered on the wind. The glass also will prevent the radioactive oxides from being leached into the water table, or will at least very greatly reduce the rate at which they could be leached if the ingot were soaked in water.

The spent fuel rods, as they are now stored at roughly 120 commercial reactor sites in the United States, could be used by ordinary terrorists to make a “dirty bomb.” They could be “reprocessed” to make new nuclear fuel rods or nuclear weapons. Once the spent fuel has been vitrified, it is much more difficult to use the material for any kind of bomb or fuel.

The glass ingots are not perfectly safe. You would not want one in your living room as the base of a lamp. But while still radioactive, they are much safer than untreated fuel rods. Vitrification eliminates the possibility of a meltdown altogether if it’s done right. The glass has a much higher melting point than the metals in it.

The question is, why would we want to wait a decade before vitrifying the fuel rods? Why would we want to ship them from all over the country in their hazardous form and then make them relatively safe?

Would it not make more sense to make them relatively safe now, by vitrifying them on the sites where they are stored? This puts them into a safer form a decade earlier and leaves them in that safer form whether they are ever shipped to Yucca Mountain or not. The national Green Party platform of 2000 said, “Current methods of underground storage are a danger to present and future generations. Any nuclear waste management strategies must be aboveground, continuously monitored, retrievable and repackageable, and must minimize transportation of wastes.” By vitrifying now, we would not be in any way committed to using Yucca Mountain as an eventual storage site.

There is no cost advantage to having a single large national vitrification plant compared to having smaller scattered vitrification plants. The jobs created by multiple vitrification plants would be in the states where the spent fuel is now. It is true that the operation of such plants would involve hazards, and could result in radioactive contamination of some of the people who work there. Still, this is less hazardous than letting the spent fuel sit, and far less hazardous than allowing the spent fuel in its present form to be shipped anywhere.

Vitrifying in place would protect us all, as well as we can be protected from spent nuclear fuel, and as soon as we could be protected. It would not leave a window of ten years of unsafe storage and then another window of hazardous shipments on our rails and roads.

If reprocessed, the spent fuel could become the new fuel for a new generation of nuclear power plants.

The captains of nuclear industry may not like it because the cost of treating the fuel from one particular nuclear plant could be plainly assigned to that plant. It would not get lost in the shuffle of a giant federal project in Nevada. The investors in nuclear power plants may be more concerned with concealing the cost of safely storing the waste than in protecting our health and our security.

The regulators of the nuclear industry may also want to postpone as long as possible the vitrification of spent fuel. So long as it is not vitrified, it is available for reprocessing . If reprocessed, the spent fuel could become the new fuel for a new generation of nuclear power plants. This is exactly why those of us who are opposed to the continuation of nuclear power should want immediate vitrification.

While the term “vitrification” is perhaps new and exotic to many of us, the techniques are known and proven. For instance, West Valley Nuclear Services company successfully used vitrification in the cleanup of a plant some 30 miles south of Buffalo, NY. Details are available on their web site at http://www.wvnsco.com. Vitrification started in 1996, and was completed in 2002; 275 canisters of high-level waste were safely solidified.

The process works on highly radioactive liquids as well as on solid waste fuel. From the web site http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/1996/104-8/forum.html:

“In March [1996] the Department of Energy’s Defense Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina began treating high-level radioactive waste—the by-product of past nuclear weapons production—for long-term storage.

“A total of 34 million gallons of radioactive waste, held in 51 underground carbon steel storage tanks, will be vitrified—a chemical process that immobilizes waste in glass, rendering it harmless to the environment—over the next 25–30 years at the Westinghouse-managed facility. At opening ceremonies on March 12 at the SRS, the world’s largest vitrification facility, DOE Secretary Hazel R. O’Leary said that ‘this process greatly reduces the threat posed by the handling and storage of these materials.’ Vitrification has been used for many years to treat high-level radioactive wastes in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Japan.”

The Green Party should insist, as loudly as possible, on a policy of vitrifying spent nuclear fuel in place.

From http://www.mindfully.org/Nucs/2002/Vitrification-Nuclear-Waste10feb02.htm:

“Right now, some of Hanford’s 53 million gallons of chemical and radioactive wastes are stored in sometimes leaky underground tanks, some of which date to World War II.

“Of the 177 tanks at the site, about 67 are known or suspected to have leaked about 1 million gallons into the ground water, which is inching toward the Columbia River.

“The $4 billion cleanup project calls for vitrifying about 10 percent of that tank waste by 2018. That’s 10 percent by volume, but is 25 percent of the radioactivity in Hanford’s tanks.”

The Green Party should insist, as loudly as possible, on a policy of vitrifying spent nuclear fuel in place. It makes for safer storage and safer shipment, gives us time to come up with a better plan than Yucca Mountain, and cuts off the possibility of reprocessing. Vitrification is what we should be doing now to eliminate the dangers. It does not cost more than waiting because it was going to be done at the end of the waiting period in any case, but waiting may set up a radioactive disaster.

[27 nov 04]

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