WASHINGTON (CN) – President Obama ordered the Secretary of Energy to create a commission on America’s Nuclear Future to explore expanding the use of nuclear energy — and what to do with the nuclear waste. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft will co-chair the commission.
In his presidential memorandum to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, establishing the commission, Obama complained that “the nation’s approach, developed more than 20 years ago, to managing materials derived from nuclear activities including nuclear fuel and nuclear waste, has not proven effective.”
Congress designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent repository for the nation’s nuclear waste, but that was snarled and eventually dropped after years of protests and litigation.
Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 the Department of Energy is responsible for containing all nuclear waste and spent fuel at all nuclear power generating stations. Since then, most waste and spent fuel have remained on the site where it was created, in “temporary” holding ponds or caskets.
The Obama administration announced in 2009 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 at the nation’s nuclear power plants. Reprocessing of spent fuel is not allowed in the United States.
There is some hope that much of the spent fuel could be burned up in molten salt reactors, which have an experimental history dating back to the 1960s. The reactors emit 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.