Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has declared that Yucca Mountain, the site in Nevada where the federal government has been planning to store high-level radioactive waste, is "never going to open." Reid may be right. President Obama's 2010 budget nearly zeroes out federal funding for the waste site. And in March, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Congress that Yucca Mountain was no longer being viewed as a viable option for storing waste and that the federal government would develop a new disposal plan.
But what's handy politics for Reid and his 2.6 million constituents in Nevada is lousy policy for the other 302 million residents of the United States. By blocking Yucca Mountain, Reid has left the U.S. without a long-term program—or even the beginnings of one—to deal with the 50,000 tons of radioactive spent nuclear fuel that has been generated by the country's fleet of 104 operating fission reactors. Furthermore, it means that the federal government has wasted two decades—and about $13.5 billion—researching and developing the site at Yucca Mountain (which is ready for use and only awaits licensing).
In the midst of this political and scientific vacuum, some of America's best nuclear physicists are seeing an opportunity for a new approach. At a meeting last month in Washington, they discussed a "fusion-fission hybrid" system of reactors that could allow the U.S. to leapfrog the idea of Yucca Mountain, which was designed only to sequester the high-level waste, and replace it with a fusion-based process that would dramatically reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste.
Before going any further, let's be clear: Fusion's reputation has been tarnished by an excess of hype. Just like fuel cell-powered cars and the hydrogen economy, producing electricity from fusion has been touted as the Next Big Thing for decades. But this isn't your dad's idea of fusion. These fusion reactors would not be designed for electricity production. Instead, their main purpose would be the production of neutrons that could then be used to destroy the most dangerous wastes produced by the world's growing fleet of fission reactors, wastes like curium.
Curium is one of the super-toxic, long-lived products of fission known as actinides. These elements—a group that includes americium and neptunium—are known as non-fissile transuranics. That means that they are artificially made elements that have atomic numbers higher than that of uranium and can't be burned in a regular fission reactor without some sort of treatment or reprocessing. These wastes are a problem, both in terms of physical safety and possible weapons proliferation.
Curium—named for the French scientists Marie and Pierre Curie, who created the theory of radioactivity—and some of the other actinides can remain dangerously radioactive for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. And now that Yucca Mountain is not available, the U.S. has nowhere to put its high-level radioactive waste. That means that each nuclear utility will have to continue storing its radioactive waste in steel canisters on-site—an untenable long-term solution.
Neutrons could be the antidote to curium and the other actinides. When actinides like curium and plutonium are irradiated with neutrons inside a reactor, they can be made to undergo fission, which destroys the original radioactive material. This process of using neutrons to destroy transuranic waste is known in nuclear power circles as "transmutation." Harold Weitzner, a professor of mathematics at the Courant Institute at New York University who has been working on fusion issues for 50 years, explains that "The neutrons act like a hammer to smash the radioactive waste and split it into smaller chunks that are less radioactive, or not radioactive at all."
Weitzner, who is among the leading proponents of the fusion-fission concept, says that some energy is released when the waste is fissioned and that heat energy can be captured to produce electricity. But he says, "the main goal is not creating energy, but the destruction of the dangerous material." What's left after the fission stops, Weitzner explains, is a variety of non-radioactive and radioactive products. But rather than having half-lives of thousands of years—plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years—most of the waste that remains will have half-lives of 30 years or less.