Up to: Nuclear FAQ
When removed from the reactor, the fuel rods are extremely radioactive and are continuing to generate heat. In fact, about 1/2 percent of the total energy is generated after the fuel rods are removed. At present it isn't considered worthwhile to try to make use of this heat, and the rods are stored under water. The water can absorb and dissipate the heat, but the rods remain intact and continue to confine the radioactive material.
After five or more years in "swimming pool" storage, the fuel rods can be moved for reprocessing or for long term storage. There is no harm in leaving them in the pools for much longer times, but then enough storage has to be provided. What to do next is causing a lot of dithering in the U.S. and some countries---but not in all countries.
The normal solution is to move the rods to a reprocessing plants. There they are dissolved in suitable acids and the constituents separated. There is some leftover uranium which is depleted in U-235, at least relative to fresh fuel. It could be put into an enrichment plant again, but apparently this isn't done. There is plutonium, which is suitable for use as reactor fuel. This is the best thing to do with it. The plutonium from a power reactor contains a substantial fraction of Pu-240 which fissions spontaneously. For this reason, plutonium from the spent fuel is not used in nuclear explosives.
The major constituent of the spent fuel consists of fission products. These are elements of middling atomic mass and many of them are still very radioactive and will remain radioactive for hundreds or thousands of years. The elements that are most radioactive decay the fastest, so the amount of radioactivity is constantly reduced. Still it takes about 500 years for the overall level of radioactivity to be less than that of the original uranium ore.
The 500 years is mainly a talking point. No-one would want to live in a uranium mine, but at least it enables one to distinguish reasonable concern from unreasonable panic.
After the fuel is reprocessed, it is important to keep the fission products from contact with people. The French solution is to make a glass out of the products and store the waste in caverns cut in granite. This will surely work. There is 1.5 cubic meter of waste produced in a year by a 1,000 megawatt reactor after reprocessing. The waste is then often encased in glass which increases the volume. In any case, the caverns don't have to be dug very fast.
The proposed American solution was similar, and the favored place to store the waste is the Nevada Test Site which has already a lot of fission products from bomb tests. However, this solution has been stalled temporarily by environmentalist politics in successive administrations and by objections from the state of Nevada. 2002 Note. A bill has passed Congress and has been signed by the President to overcome the Nevada objections. There will be lawsuits, but it is thought that wastes can be stored starting in 2010.
In the meantime American waste remains in the "swimming pools". There is no harm in this, and the fact that there is no physical harm in delay encourages more and more delay. There is the political and psychological harm that delaying an important decision is used as an argument against nuclear energy.
Actually the American situation is complicated by the Carter Adminstration decision to refrain from reprocessing and dispose of the plutonium along with the fission products. This decision is wasteful and gives rise to arguments about proliferation, because someone might get the plutonium. The theory behind Carter's decision was that it would influence other governments to refrain from extracting plutonium from their wastes. No other government has been influenced, but reprocessing has not been resumed.
Let me reiterate that the main point of these Web pages is to show that progress is sustainable. It is not to recommend particular decisions about how to sustain it. Certainly nuclear power can provide the energy necessary to sustain progress.
However, when there is plenty of natural gas, that is likely to be cheaper while it lasts. In some places, coal may be cheaper, but this depends on how you count the environmental costs of coal.
The decision to incur such involuntary risks is a collective decision, made in accordance with laws.
Probably this page needs refinement. If I have neglected some important argument, let me know, and I'll try to fix it.
The leading American anti-nuclear organization is Ralph Nader's Critical Mass Energy Project. It has many anti-nuclear legal actions going. I don't know whether there is any systematic source of comments on its actions and contentions.
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