Curmudgeon’s View: Waste, DOE, and New Reactors

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, March 11, 2010 — As reported in POWER NEWS, the Obama administration has formally pulled the plug on the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, project to store spent commercial reactor fuel, the latest in more than a 50-year record of failure on the part of the federal government to fashion a way to deal with reactor fuel at the end of its useful life. The announcement is also the formal obituary of the 1982 (and 1987-amended) Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

I say, “good riddance.” The nuke waste act was a legal and technical abomination. It was both coercive (eat this, Nevada) and feckless (science? don’t need no stinkin’ science). Yucca became dead dump walking when Harry Reid of Nevada became Senate Majority Leader. The election of Barack Obama nailed down the lid on the Yucca Mountain coffin.

So what’s next in the seemingly endless search for a way to make nuclear waste disappear? Some, including a Republican congressional candidate from New Mexico, are advocating use of the Carlsbad, N.M., salt beds, where the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project is now storing defense wastes, as an easy answer.

But that doesn’t work. WIPP, which I have referred to in the past as the “wasteful, idiotic pilot project,” is designed to handle transuranic wastes — long-lived, man-made isotopes that are atomically hot, but not thermally alive. WIPP is not designed to handle spent fuel rods, which are not only pumping out radioactivity, but spewing a lot of thermal energy. WIPP isn’t configured to handle conventional heat, and salt has a problem. It melts, and it dissolves in water. Oops!

Others have revived the long-dead nuclear industry panacea of reprocessing. This involves chopping up spent fuel rods, chemically treating them to removed reactor-grade plutonium, and using that as nuclear fuel in sodium-cooled “breeder” reactors that produce more fuel than they use. Here’s the problem: Enriched uranium is cheap. Reprocessed plutonium would be far more expensive than the uranium fuel. On top of that, the remaining liquid chemical residue is nasty stuff of the Superfund variety.

What’s more, as a report from the International Panel on Fissile Materials recently concluded, hopes for breeder technology “are not merited by the dismal track record to date of such sodium-cooled reactors in France, India, Japan, the Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.” The report notes that Adm. Hyman Rickover, the late father of the nuclear Navy, observed that breeders are “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.”

What to do? In my judgment, nothing. Let spent fuel remain at reactor sites, in storage judged safe by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Kick the spent fuel can down the road.

LOL Stimulus Money

The Department of Energy has announced that it is willing to offer $100 million in stimulus funds to bring “green” technologies, whatever that means, to the commercial market. DOE has invented what it claims is a clone of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), calling it DARPA-E.

This, boys and girls, is a joke. DARPA has a multi-decade track record of success, including (eat your heart out, Al Gore) the Internet. DOE has a multi-decade track record of R&D wheel-spinning (recall the hype over geothermal heat pumps and water heaters). Mostly, that’s because DARPA’s research had a real focus on defense-related needs, with little focus on commercial viability. The commercial aspects came later, in the private sector.

DOE’s research objectives are mostly hopeful hand-waving. For example, here is what Energy Secretary Steven Chu allegedly said, reported in a DOE press release: “This is about unleashing the American innovation machine to solve the energy and climate challenge, while creating new jobs, new industries and new exports for America’s workers.”

Huh? Parse that carefully and you get what has been characteristic of the Obama administration, all fluff and no meat. The statement is entirely anodyne. All of the initiatives — health care, financial reform, climate change — the administration claims, achieve multiple goals, not susceptible of quantification. They are the Big Rock Candy Mountain, complete with cigarette trees and lemonade springs where bluebirds sing.

Also, anybody who believes that Chu actually wrote those news release words, please raise your hand. You are voted off the island. Energy secretaries say what their handlers allow them to say and write for them.  Chu is a very smart and amusing guy (he was great on NRP’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”) but he doesn’t say anything about administration policy that isn’t scripted by the White House.

And how does this stuff qualify as “stimulus?” Name the jobs created, the businesses revived, the new industries. Bogus. You can’t do it.

Gaseous Reactor Money

Along those lines, DOE has also announced $40 million in R&D money for a nuclear reactor technology that has been around for five decades, sucked up hundreds of millions of federal money, and failed to demonstrated anything approaching commercial viability. Failed nuclear reactor technologies never die at DOE. They just smell that way, and continue to rake in money, despite the odor.

The energy agency says it will split the $40 million between Westinghouse in Pittsburgh and San Diego-based General Atomics for work on what it calls, with no sense of shame, history, or irony, the “Next Generation Nuclear Plant” or NGNP. Please, this is a last generation technology: high temperature gas-cooled reactors. Looks good on paper, doesn’t work on the ground.

In making the award to keep alive a technology that has never proven commercial, Chu allegedly said: “This investment reflects President Obama’s commitment to building the next generation of nuclear reactors that will create thousands of jobs and supply the clean energy to power our economy. It’s time for America to recapture the lead in the nuclear energy industry and lay the foundation for a stronger, cleaner, and more competitive economic future.”

I doubt that Chu ever said these words, let alone even reviewed them before the press release hit cyberspace.

Helium-cooled, high-temperature reactors have been a pipe dream of the nuclear industry since the early 1950s. The promise has always been been dual-purpose: electricity and high-temperature steam for industrial purposes.

General Atomics developed a 40 MW pilot reactor at the Philadelphia Electric Company’s (now an Exelon unit)  Peach Bottom site in eastern Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. The plant ran well, and that led to several orders for scaled-up commercial reactors (including one at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which, in those days, would buy anything nuclear, no matter how far-fetched). The only HTGR that actually got built was Public Service Co. of Colorado’s 300-MW Fort St. Vrain plant. For a number of reasons, the plant, which operated sporadically between 1977 and 1992, failed. The utility’s successor, Xcel Energy, converted it to a natural gas plant. Sic transit gloria HTGRs.

What are the odds the DOE money will revive this technology? Slim just left the room.