Is Spent Fuel Or Waste From Reprocessed Spent Fuel Simpler To Dispose Of?

EMD-81-78: Published: Jun 12, 1981. Publicly Released: Jul 13, 1981.

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The lack of a permanent solution to the spent fuel and high-level wastes issue has been a fundamental problem hindering the growth of nuclear power. The Department of Energy (DOE) is attempting to identify the best possible disposal technologies and repository sites and is studying several types of geological media to determine which is best suited for a repository. In addition, it is designing a series of barriers which will surround the nuclear wastes once they are placed in the repository. The first repository will not be completed for 20 years. There is substantial disagreement about whether permanently disposed of high-level nuclear waste should include spent fuel or just the unusable part of the spent fuel that remains after chemical reprocessing.

GAO found that the form of the waste, spent fuel or solidified high-level waste, will have a significant influence not only on the location, design, and possibly the number of repositories, but also on the ability of DOE to assure isolation of waste for the period of its toxicity. The waste package offers major advantages in the disposal of high-level wastes. The technical waste program of DOE is making progress. At present, DOE is planning to bury spent fuel as a nuclear waste, but some experts believe that it is too valuable a resource to throw away and that its disposal creates special waste isolation problems. GAO found that spent fuel does indeed create problems that makes its isolation more difficult as it remains toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. GAO found that: spent fuel cannot be made into a homogeneous mixture to suit the characteristics of the repository and other parts of the waste system, could require three times as much area in a repository as reprocessed high-level waste, would cost more to dispose of than high-level waste, is a valuable energy resource, and even when disposed of does not eliminate the proliferation problem but merely transfers it to future generations. If commercial nuclear power makes a strong comeback and fulfills the predictions from its early development, spent fuel will be a valuable resource, worth the equivalent of billions of barrels of oil. Until Congress makes a decision on the future of nuclear power, DOE has no option but to plan for any eventuality, including the potential of geological disposal of spent fuel.

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