Turning waste repositories into nuclear energy hubs

The search for final repository sites tends to focus on putting waste as far out of sight as possible. But there are sound arguments for turning a repository into a nuclear centrepiece.

 

Dr Charles Forsberg probably knows as much about nuclear power life cycle costs as anyone. And the executive director for the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a pretty clear message when it comes to final waste repositories. 

“We have a strong recommendation that if you build a repository you should seriously consider co-locating lots of other facilities at the repository site,” he says. 

“The problem right now in a repository is that because of the history of the cold war, what we did is we built all these fuel cycle facilities after everything was totally built. Then we said: ‘let’s go find a single-purpose repository to dump the trash.’

“We very efficiently separated all the benefits from the liabilities.”

This has led, in the US at least, to a policy-driven quest to find repository sites that are far from anywhere, and particularly far from other nuclear facilities. 

Yucca Mountain

But looking to dump nuclear waste in remote locations such as the ill-fated Yucca Mountain site does not make a lot of sense, Forsberg says. The main reason is that having different parts of the nuclear fuel cycle spread across the country leads to massive inefficiencies. 

In contrast, having a repository and a nuclear power plant on the same site can provide a number of advantages, regardless of whether an open or a closed fuel cycle is involved. And if you add in other facilities to build a ‘nuclear hub’, the benefits mount up. 

With an open fuel cycle, co-location gives the power plant operator easy access to a spent fuel pile, as well as a readymade packaging facility and a repository. 

The site could also be used for spent fuel training and research and other purposes, concentrating a large mass of nuclear personnel and expertise in a single, efficient, purpose-built location. 

In a closed fuel cycle environment, there is an assumption that disposed-of spent fuel may need to be recovered later.

Repository site

So it is logical to have a reprocessing plant at the repository site since “if you take a waste package from underground it is not going to be ready to be shipped down the road,” Forsberg says. 

In addition, having a reprocessing plant next to a repository is a good idea because otherwise a significant reprocessing effort, equivalent to between 30% and 50% of the total activity, needs to go into treatment and packaging to allow the waste to be shipped to another site on public roads.

As a result, Forsberg estimates the potential savings that could be gained from co-location might run into millions if not billions of dollars a year. 

All of this is in addition to the fact that putting a repository next to an existing nuclear facility is likely to be much less onerous in terms of public acceptance than building one on a greenfield site. 

Professor Katherine Morris, BNFL research chair in geological disposal at the University of Manchester’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, UK, says: “My view is that a voluntarism approach to nuclear disposal facilities is the way forward. 

“It is clear that communities close to nuclear facilities may feel able to proceed with voluntarism more readily than non-nuclear communities. Looking at the situations where progress has been made, imposing a disposal facility on the community does not seem to be the way forward.” 

Good arguments

These are good arguments. And it has to be said that Forsberg’s views, which have been submitted to the US Department of Energy, are shared by many in the nuclear industry. 

“I have strong feelings that recycling works, long-term research and next-generation reactors should be placed next to existing nuclear reactors,” says Mark Lewis, an energy policy adviser to the State of Arizona and long-term proponent of using nuclear within wider energy parks.

“Yucca Mountain is a great example of how not to site a new long-term waste site. Brownfield sites are always better received. If you look at the MOX fuel site that Areva runs in Marcoule in the south of France, you can see a great example of having several uses on one site.”

Dr James Conca, director of RJ Lee Group’s Center for Laboratory Science, also has not problems with the hub concept but cautions that nuclear safety must come first. “The primary issue is the geology,” he says. “A deep geological repository is all about the geology.

He adds: “Once you pick the correct rock, then you can choose the actual site for other reasons, like social acceptance, economics, access to transportation, and proximity to something like a reactor.

“Choosing the site near a generating station usually provides ready-made local public acceptance, already-done environmental impact statements and other studies that are common to both structures. Also, professional workforce and other infrastructure can provide dual use.”