Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Modest Proposal

Here's an ad that Barack Obama's campaign has been running in Nevada:

This is, of course, standard anti-nuclear scaremongering, but we oughtn't let McCain off the hook for his opposition to nuclear "waste" shipments moving through Arizona.

In any case, we should make the best of the situation. If the Democrats' opposition to Yucca Mountain can be translated into government support for advanced fuel cycles, this is all for the better. After all, Yucca Mountain and the open fuel cycle to epitomizes have failed to have the desired effect. In theory, U.S. opposition to closed fuel cycles was supposed to encourage other nations from pursuing this technology, but in experience no one seems to have cared about what US practice was. France, Russia, and Japan have gone along the closed fuel cycle path with little regard for American disapproval. Meanwhile, Yucca has turned into an albatross for the nuclear industry. So long as the repository remains incomplete, the nuclear waste problem can be used as a bat to bash nuclear power.

To people in the know, of course, this is all very maddening. The nuclear "waste" awaiting disposal at Yucca Mountain still contains nearly all of its potential energy--enough to provide for all of America's energy needs for over a lifetime if utilized efficiently. So sensibly, pro-nuclear types have wanted to use this energy rather than throw it away.

At the same time, some solution must be found for the large quantities of nuclear waste produced by the U.S. government over the last 65 years in military programs. The decision to store this material with spent civilian fuel in the Yucca repository may have once been a way of "killing two birds with one stone," but in retrospect it seems to have been ill-advised. In any case, it is inarguable the United States government has a responsibility to develop a way of dealing with this material. Harvey Wasserman's weird fantasies aside, wishful thinking won't allow us shut every nuclear facility, turn Yucca Mtn. into a casino, and somehow ignore this stuff.

So long as politicians are going to oppose Yucca, therefore, they are obligated to provide some kind of alternative. So here's my proposal: a program to develop a transmutation reactor (perhaps to be called the Waste Transmutation Pilot Plant) whose primary purpose would be to demonstrate transmutation, preferably on a commercial scale. There are a variety of technological options for this, but the most mature are light-metal cooled fast reactors. I'm a fan of liquid-fuel reactors, but I'm not sure how well the existing research will translate into a fast transmutation reactor. In any case, I think the best way to deal with this question within DOE would be to have a competition between various proposals of varying degrees of technical ambition. I'm sure that even among ALMRs, there are many possible options to choose from. Ideally I'd prefer it if Argonne got a fast transmutation reactor project and ORNL got to build a follow-on to the MSRE that would demonstrate the thorium fuel cycle in an MSR, but perhaps this is wishing for too much.

But in any case, we need a solution to break the deadlock that has held up nuclear power development for decades. If the waste issue can be manipulated to spur the development of more modern nuclear technologies, America--and the world--will be better off for it. It's like making lemonade from the Yucca lemon.

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