Used nuclear fuel can be safely stored in Mississippi

October 22, 2013 11:33:15 AM



Most of us know that getting Mississippians to support the idea of building a facility to store and recycle the nation's used-nuclear fuel would be difficult. But it deserves serious consideration given its many economic benefits. 


How to deal with the radioactive remnants from the production of nuclear-generated electricity and the nation's nuclear weapons program is always a contentious subject. But it's an issue that is more political than technological ­-- scientists and engineers know how to consolidate nuclear waste safely for storage in concrete and steel casks above ground or, for that matter, in an underground vault. It already being done. The difficult part is overcoming the phenomenon known as NIMBY, "not in my backyard", that has stalled and possibly ended construction of a waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. 


But the political task is not insurmountable. Keep in mind that used fuel remaining in a reactor following production of electricity at a nuclear power plant is not waste. It contains valuable plutonium that can be recycled, or reprocessed, into a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for further use in generating electricity. France and Great Britain have been doing precisely that for decades. Recycling reduces the amount of nuclear waste by at least half. 


What is important to recognize is that a facility to convert surplus weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel for electricity production is currently under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. More than 60 percent complete, the MOX Fabrication Facility is the largest infrastructure project being built in the U.S. and is costing more than $8 billion and employing 4,000 construction workers. It could be replicated in Mississippi, the difference being that the plutonium would come from used fuel stored at nuclear plants like Grand Gulf instead of the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons materials. 


If people oppose the idea of consolidated used-fuel storage without considering its merits, we stand to lose a project that would energize Mississippi's economy, create jobs, and provide millions of dollars in revenue for the state and local governments. Mississippi has over 50 salt domes, one of which was used for detonation of nuclear devices back in the 60's. Such structures are now being used for storage of liquefied petroleum gas and compressed air. 


Myth #1. Storing highly-radioactive nuclear waste in Mississippi would devastate our economy. 


That's what most environmentalists say. But property values didn't fall in Carlsbad, New Mexico, nor did the number of visitors to Carlsbad's world-renowned caverns decline after a permanent repository was built to store highly-radioactive transuranic waste from the production of U.S. nuclear bombs. 


Called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the facility is located a half-mile beneath the desert floor just 22 miles outside Carlsbad, a city of 25,000. Since it opened in 1999, more than 200,000 tons of nuclear waste has been shipped by rail and truck to WIPP from government labs and weapons facilities around the country, some more than 1,000 miles away. The waste shipments are expected to continue for another 25 to 35 years, at which time the repository will be closed and sealed. 


WIPP is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the New Mexico Environmental Department. But unlike the Yucca Mountain project, which was forced down the throats of Nevadans, DOE used a consent-based approach to gain acceptance from political and business leaders and the public in New Mexico. With an annual budget of $215 million, WIPP provides 1,330 permanent jobs in the Carlsbad area that has the lowest unemployment rate in New Mexico. 


Myth # 2. A salt dome is too unstable for a waste repository. 


Salt is different than tuff, the volcanic rock at Yucca Mountain. Salt has plasticity and will close any fissures or cracks in the repository. Experts say that within 200 years after closure salt will collapse around all of the empty spaces in the repository, sealing it off from the environment essentially forever. 


Myth # 3. Transporting used nuclear fuel and high-level waste from one region of the country to another for consolidated storage would be unsafe. 


Used nuclear fuel is essentially ceramic pellets that are encased in metal tubes. The fuel cannot explode. Nor can high-level waste explode. Both are transported in massive containers that protect public health and the environment in the event of a serious accident. Since the 1970's, there have been more than 5,000 shipments of used fuel and nuclear waste by truck and rail, without harm to the public or the environment. 


So, having dispelled the myths, let's give serious consideration to building a storage site in the salt domes of Mississippi. 


Dr. C.T. Carley is a professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at Mississippi State University and served as head of the mechanical and nuclear engineering department. He lives in Starkville and can be emailed at [email protected]