Mini nuclear reactors land in science dispute over waste production

A public battle over an academic study that cast doubt on the waste promises of advanced nuclear reactors has driven a wedge between proponents and skeptics of the technology as policymakers seek to bolster nuclear’s role in achieving global goals. climate change goals.

The struggle has thrust new reactor designs into one of nuclear power’s political liabilities: the unanswered question of what to do with nuclear waste.

The study, co-authored by a former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has been criticized by developers of advanced reactors who say it relied on outdated design criteria and skewed the volume of waste that could be generated in the future. One developer, NuScale Power, demanded a fix.

The three study authors say they have sought the most comprehensive and independently verifiable information available, and that data challenges and industry backlash point to a key problem in evaluating a misunderstood component of technology.

The industry has yet to cite a technical flaw that changes the study’s findings, said the study’s lead author Lindsay Krall, who was a MacArthur postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation in Stanford.

“Small modular reactors will not alleviate the burden of nuclear waste,” Krall said. “More likely they will make our nuclear waste problems worse.”

Small reactors

Developers have touted 21st century reactors as being cheaper to build and having a smaller environmental footprint compared to the current fleet of light water reactors that are more than 50 years old. The designs envision smaller, stackable reactors that can have different fuel and cooling systems.

Nuclear’s zero-carbon profile appeals to a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers, officials and others seeking climate-friendly electricity. Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs, have attracted investors such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Today, the Department of Energy has backed 10 advanced reactor designs, spending billions of dollars to demonstrate the technology can work. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is developing a new set of licensing regulations that can more easily review advanced reactors.

But US nuclear waste policy has not budged. The situation has forced current operators to store some 86,000 tonnes of waste at 75 power plant sites in 33 states, according to a Government Accountability Office report released last year.

Policymakers have been deadlocked since 1987, when Congress designated Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as the only permanent burial site in the United States. Politicians and local communities in Nevada widely oppose Yucca Mountain, and the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have put it to sleep.

The Department of Energy has initiated a consent-based process for the location of interim nuclear waste management facilities. The NRC has also evaluated tentative sites in Texas and New Mexico, but both have been opposed by governors in those states.

The industry is moving forward, eyeing college campuses, hospitals and communities for research and the eventual deployment of reactors. In May, Purdue University and Duke Energy announced plans to explore the feasibility of a small modular reactor to meet the school’s long-term campus energy needs in West Lafayette, Indiana.

A Purdue spokesperson told Bloomberg Law that it was too early to say whether the SMR waste studies would be part of the research.

Data Debate

On May 30, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the study by Krall and others. By examining three reactor designs from NuScale Power, Terrestrial Energy and Toshiba, the authors concluded that small modular reactors could generate more nuclear waste than the current fleet of reactors by a factor of two to 30.

The backlash was almost immediate. On June 2, NuScale published a letter to the editor of the journal pointing out a “factual error,” saying the researchers had ignored data from a more updated and larger version of NuScale’s reactor. Using this data, which was provided to the researchers, the waste streams fall within the values ​​typically seen in light water reactors, wrote Jose N. Reyes, co-founder and chief technology officer of NuScale.

The academy’s editorial board is evaluating NuScale’s letter, academy spokesperson Prashant Nair said.

The authors, in a joint letter and in interviews, defended their decision to analyze NuScale’s 160 megawatt reactor. Its design specifications had been submitted to the NRC for certification and review, providing a source they could refer to.

“It took a long time to find the data, to do the math, but it’s important to understand,” study co-author Allison Macfarlane, a professor at the University of British Columbia who told Bloomberg Law, told Bloomberg Law. chaired the NRC from 2012 to 2014.

When she left the commission, Macfarlane found that while new reactor designs had attracted attention, the projected impacts on the waste were subject to little scrutiny.

“Shouldn’t you understand the waste impacts of an energy source before jumping into an energy source?” Isn’t that responsible? said Macfarlane. “This study is only a first effort in this direction.”

Not a Dealbreaker?

The industry and its supporters say the study unfairly and biasedly focused on a problem that government officials failed to address for decades.

“Something has to be done at some point about waste, so it’s helpful to have these conversations,” said Adam Stein, director of nuclear energy innovation at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank. . “It’s not helpful to do it in a biased way that leads to a conclusion one way or the other to achieve a goal instead of just following the science.”

It’s no surprise that the developers sought to “put things right,” said John Kotek, senior vice president of policy development and public affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade association. But he thinks the study won’t change the way society views nuclear.

“For me, the big picture: will this have a significant impact on the decisions that utilities and energy planners are going to make regarding the future energy mix?” said Kotek. “And I don’t think that’s the case.”

While the study raises important points, some of the reactions from both sides may have been exaggerated and obscured the overall importance of nuclear to the U.S. energy mix, said Chuck Mason, a professor at the University of Wyoming and academic researcher for the research organization Resources for the Future.

The waste issue deserves “attention,” Mason said, but “it’s miles away from a dealbreaker.”

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