Climate change continues to drive the upcoming 2020 presidential election, and a majority of Democratic candidates have already put out their plans. Many revolve around similar strategies: move to 100 percent renewable energy, electrification of the transportation sector, and taxes on carbon. The timeframes vary, and some hope to achieve all of this before today’s toddlers have graduated from high school.
Lofty ambitions are essential — after all, the airplane hardly seemed like a sensible idea when the Wright brothers strapped wings to a bicycle — but the politics of the issue severely hamstring current debates. This is clear with the lack of support for nuclear energy.
Of course, nuclear energy is not without problems when compared to other zero-emission technologies, including high costs and longer construction times. But these aren’t your grandfather’s power plants.
New reactor designs, such as small modular reactors, hope to overcome those problems by implementing reactors that require a less up-front investment. These innovations promise better passive safety features, making a historically safe technology even safer. Perhaps the most significant political challenge facing nuclear power is the issue of dealing with radioactive waste. Spent nuclear fuel does pose substantial health risks if not handled correctly, but effective management is entirely possible. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who hopes to phase out all nuclear by 2035, stated in a town hall earlier this month:
“[Nuclear energy] is not carbon-based, but it has a lot of risks associated with it, particularly the risks associated with spent fuel rods.”
Senator Bernie Sanders has written into his own Green New Deal that:
“This plan will stop the building of new nuclear power plants and find a real solution to our existing nuclear waste problem. It will also enact a moratorium on nuclear power plant license renewals in the United States to protect surrounding communities. We know that the toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit…”
If nuclear waste is driving current concerns around nuclear energy, other countries provide a roadmap and potential solutions. For example, France, South Korea, and India have found answers to dealing with waste.
Deep borehole disposal is not a new idea, but it has become a more promising option with the development of horizontal drilling. Oil and gas exploration companies developed horizontal drilling as a way of more efficiently accessing oil and gas resources. Deep borehole disposal uses this horizontal drilling technology to drill a mile or more underground until the well reaches a layer of impermeable rock known as shale. Shale is incredibly dense. So dense that when oil and gas producers drill into it, they have to use explosives to fracture the rock enough that oil and gas will seep out. That density is equally effective at keeping radioactive elements in and isolated from our environment.
Once drillers reach this layer of rock, they then drill horizontally along to create a storage well. Containers of radioactive waste can then be deposited in those boreholes, and can even be extracted at a later date if necessary. The real benefit of this process is that the fuel is stored deep below the surface and below the water table, which reduces any risk of radioactive contamination.
Another method, known as reprocessing, has been adopted by European countries. Reprocessing (akin to recycling) is a method of extracting unused uranium from spent fuel rods. This is possible because fuel rods must be replaced every few years, even though only about 5–10 percent of the uranium in the rod has been used in the fission process. The reason fuel rods must be replaced so often is that in addition to energy, the fission process also creates several byproducts. The buildup of these byproducts — fission fragments and heavy elements — makes the fuel rod less efficient during the fission process, as it effectively “gunks-up” the reactor. Over 90 percent of the uranium ever enriched for use in nuclear reactors has gone unused. If fully utilized, the 270,000 metric tons of nuclear waste that currently exists around the world still has enough energy potential to power the entire globe for 72 years. William Magwood, IV, Director-General of the Nuclear Energy Agency, likens this process to
“pulling a log out of the fireplace just because the bark has burned off.”
In a state-of-the-art facility in Northern France, for example, fuel rods are cut up and deposited in vats of acid which separate the valuable uranium and plutonium from other radioactive byproducts created during the fission process. The uranium and plutonium can then be used for new nuclear products, while the radioactive materials are converted into glass logs which can be effectively stored underground.
This process reduces the amount of highly radioactive waste by a factor of four to five. It also creates jobs and economic opportunities for French workers. The facility in Northern France created an estimated 11,000 jobs and $624 million in economic opportunity.
Some ambitious nuclear scientists are hoping to skip the reprocessing stage altogether and instead use the spent fuel to power reactors outright. A technology known as molten-salt reactors dissolves the uranium in a molten-salt, creating a reactor core that is liquid rather than solid. A molten core provides several benefits over solid uranium cores. The liquid property of the core makes it easy to develop safety mechanisms to prevent a potential meltdown. It also makes it possible to separate fission byproducts from the salt, meaning that rather than having to remove uranium after 5 to 10 percent of it has been fissioned, uranium can remain in the core until it has been ultimately used up.
This technology has been proven to work but has yet to be utilized on a commercial scale. Should that breakthrough occur, it would turn spent fuel from a costly liability to a valuable fuel source.
All potential solutions should be on the table. We have the opportunity to offer cheaper energy that produces fewer carbon emissions. We should be embracing that opportunity, not shunning it. Whether policymakers want to follow the lead of Europe and focus on reprocessing, or take advantage of new disposal and recycling techniques being developed by entrepreneurs, they have options for solving the waste problem.