Nuclear wasteFuture Solutions for Spent Nuclear Fuel

Published 4 September 2021

Nuclear technology has been used in the United States for decades for national defense, research and development, and carbon-free electric power generation. Nuclear power is a key element of the U.S. response to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, nuclear energy, as an essential form of electricity production, generates radioactive waste in the form of spent nuclear fuel. Spent nuclear fuel must be handled, stored, and ultimately disposed of in a manner that won’t harm the environment.

Nearly 10 years ago, nuclear engineer Steve Maheras and five other nuclear experts set out on an ambitious journey—a several-hundred-mile road trip to evaluate three closed nuclear power plants in three days. At the time, they had no idea the precedent they were setting would form a standard for evaluation that would prove valuable for years to come.

“We each had our own areas of expertise, but there was commonality in wanting to look at the sites’ spent nuclear fuel conditions and explore the surrounding communities,” says Maheras, an expert in Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s (PNNL’s) Nuclear Sciences Division. “I think back on it now and it makes me smile, the optimism and energy we had to evaluate three sites in three days, but the trip turned out to be the jumping off point for critical work that continues today.”

Their trek to Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Station in western Massachusetts, and Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant ultimately provided a framework for future power plant site evaluations to identify gaps in information needed to ship radioactive waste. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) would come to prioritize these evaluations for their value in assessing site and transportation infrastructure and the transportability of spent nuclear fuel while also garnering community feedback via stakeholder engagement.

Bringing Together the Right Kinds of Experts
Things have come a long way since those first site visits. Currently, Maheras and various colleagues have completed a total of 16 nuclear power plant site evaluations and one virtual evaluation. Outcomes from their visits were published in an April 2021 report to DOE titled, “Nuclear Power Plant Infrastructure Evaluations for Removal of Spent Nuclear Fuel.”

Within its pages, Maheras and colleagues:

·  confirm aspects of waste inventories at sites

·  share detailed inventory data

·  catalog transportation infrastructure at and near sites

·  index detailed photos

·  represent engagement with tribes and local communities.

All 17 sites were found to have at least one option for off-site transportation to remove their spent nuclear fuel, with some sites having multiple options. Importantly, the visits prioritized engagement with state and tribal partners and many other stakeholders, with their voices informing the site evaluations.