"Cancelling the Yucca Mountain repository will throw the entire nuclear waste management program into doubt"
15 Jun, 2009 09:33 pm
Following the Obama administration's decision to end the planning for Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the final repository for high-level radioactive material from all of the nation's nuclear power plants, a panel of nuclear power experts met in May at MIT to discuss how to address nuclear waste recycling or disposal, which many analysts consider the biggest obstacle to building a new generation of nuclear power plants across America. Dr. Matthew Bunn, who took part in the debate, answers Scitizen's questions.
No, I think that was a mistake. Yucca Mountain, if properly designed and operated, could provide a safe place for permament disposal of nuclear waste. Cancelling it will throw the entire nuclear waste management program into doubt, and it is likely to be decades before the United States can settle on another site.
In your testimony, you declared that using today's reprocessing technologies presents greater risks for nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Do you include new reprocessing technologies that are being developed to be deployed in conjunction with fast neutron reactors so that they end up as short-lived fission products?
Those are not today’s technologies. None of them will be ready for commercial deployment for something like 20 years, if not more. Moreover, I have not yet seen a convincing end-to-end systems analysis that would indicate that these technologies, judged overall (including cost, waste management, safety, security against terrorism, proliferation risks, public acceptance, and use of resources) are superior to the once-through approaches that are likely to be available several decades hence.
What are your recommendations regarding America's next generation of nuclear power plants?
For better or for worse, the next generation of nuclear power plants in the United States will be the designs already on offer from the major reactor vendors. Whether they will be built in any substantial numbers will depend in substantial part on whether they end up being economically competitive with other low-carbon alternatives. The costs of nuclear power plants have skyrocketed in recent years, but the costs of coal and gas plants have risen substantially as well. The costs of sources such as wind and solar depends in part on what allowance is made for their intermittent nature. The outcome of the competition is not yet clear. I believe the U.S. government should move forward with a carefully structured program of loan guarantees for the first few nuclear power plants —and with similar guarantees for other new low-carbon energy sources— but should structure the effort with the explicit goal of getting to a situation after the first few plants where they no longer need government support.
Interview by Clementine Fullias
Matthew Bunn is an Associate Professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His research interests include nuclear theft and terrorism; nuclear proliferation and measures to control it; and the future of nuclear energy and its fuel cycle.