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Monday, June 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds Explore Expanding Nuclear Energy

WASHINGTON (CN) President Obama has ordered the Secretary of Energy to create a Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to explore expanding the use of nuclear energy.

The President wants the commission to report back to him in 18 months with a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

In a separate statement, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced that former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who previously co-chaired the Iraq Study Group and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, will co-chair the new commission.

In his memorandum to Secretary Chu establishing the commission, Obama complained that "the nation's approach, developed over 20 years ago, to managing materials derived from nuclear activities including nuclear fuel and nuclear waste, has not proven effective."

Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the first permanent repository for the nation's nuclear waste. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 the Department of Energy is required to take ownership of and responsibility for the containment of all nuclear waste and spent fuel at all nuclear reactor sites. Since then, most waste and spent fuel remained on the site of the reactor where it was created in "temporary" holding ponds or casks, as the Yucca Mountain site continued to be plagued by construction delays, legal challenges and cost overruns.

Finally, in 2009, the Obama administration announced that it would not proceed with the Yucca Mountain project and cut its funding from the federal budget.

As of 2007 there were 50,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and waste. Currently, no reprocessing of spent fuel is allowed in the United States.

There is some hope that much of that spent fuel could be burned up in molten salt reactors which have an experimental history dating back to the 1960's. These reactors emit very little radioactive waste as the molten salt traps the products of fission.

The core and primary cooling loop of this type of reactor is operated at near atmospheric pressure, and has no steam, so a pressure explosion is impossible. Unfortunately, the most advanced project to build such a reactor, the Fuji MSR in Japan is still decades from completion.

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