MIT Study Weighs In On Nuclear Storage

Photo by Janine Forbes, some rights reserved

On the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and in the immediate wake of the nuclear crisis at the Daiichi plant in Fukushima following the Japanese tsunami and earthquake, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a new study, led by MIT Research Scientist Charles W. Forsberg, that advocates for the storing of used nuclear fuel for potential future reuse as opposed to reprocessing it, which can be seen as more environmentally dangerous.

The process of reprocessing nuclear waste, in which the used fuels are combed through and leftover plutonium and other valuable minerals are chemically separated, was originally proposed in the 1960’s, when plutonium was used solely for weapons. In the 1970’s, the United States government decided that the risks that came along with reprocessing were too great, and decided to instead begin disposing of nuclear waste in vastly deep underground repositories where it would be sanctioned off and out of the way. Since the rise of nuclear power, however, the process has been suggested as a way to increase efficiency and waste at nuclear plants by cycling plutonium directly back into thermal reactors. A more in-depth look at how reprocessing works can be found in the BBC archives, while an extensive rundown of the public safety concerns and scientific and economic downsides that come with nuclear reprocessing can be found on the website for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In recent weeks, in the wake of the tragedy in Japan, reprocessing again has been suggested by American advocates who believe that reprocessed plutonium could then be substituted for uranium. However, as is suggested in Forsberg’s study, the global supply of uranium is very healthy, with ten times as much uranium surplussed as would be needed to fuel ten times the number of reactors currently on earth for 100 years. An alternative, the study suggests, would be to store used nuclear waste in centralized, high-grade concrete silos located in areas with small population density, where they would still be available for reuse (as opposed to disposing the waste underground) but would avoid any of the safety and health hazards that come with reprocessing.

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