Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Nuplex Solution

by Marcel F. Williams

In 1982, the United States Congress passed a law requiring the Department of Energy to find a suitable site to construct a disposal facility for the radioactive spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors. In 2005, 52,000 tonnes of spent fuel was being held at nuclear power and military facilities in the US. And it is estimated that by 2015, the nation's nuclear power facilities will be storing over 75,000 metric tons of spent fuel on site. There are laws preventing the expansion of nuclear power within several States in the US until a final storage solution is found for the radioactive spent fuel accumulating at current commercial nuclear reactor sites. And to fund such a permanent storage facility, nuclear utilities have paid nearly $30 billion in fees and interest to a Federal “nuclear waste fund”.

Nuclear Energy Institute map of stored radioactive waste from the commercial and military nuclear industry

Eventually, Yucca Mountain became the Department of Energy's solution to the nations nuclear waste problem. Over 2 billion dollars has been spent studying the Yucca Mountain area in Nevada with an additional 5 to 6 billion dollars to finish the facility by 2010. But there has been strong political and environmental opposition to storing spent fuel at the Yucca Mountain facility. Harry Reid, Senator from Nevada and the current leader of the US Senate, strongly opposes Yucca Mountain as a repository for the nation's nuclear waste material. And President Barack Obama ran in opposition to utilizing the Yucca Mountain facility for radwaste deposition during his campaign for president.

So it now seems unlikely that the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada will be utilized for the deposition of the nation's spent fuel. And the Nuclear Energy Institute has reportedly recently advanced the idea that President Barack Obama convene a blue ribbon nuclear waste commission to find an alternative to burying radioactive power plant fuel at Yucca Mountain.

Despite that fact that there are tens of thousands of tonnes of spent fuel now residing at US commercial nuclear power plants, it should be noted that only 3 or 4% of that spent fuel is actually radioactive waste. After enriched uranium is utilized in a nuclear reactor for fuel, 96% of the remaining mass is in the form of the original fertile uranium 238 with a residual component of fissile uranium 235 composing about 0.83% of the total uranium content. This percentage of uranium 235 is down from its original 3% as fuel, but still higher than the 0.71% natural concentration of uranium. An additional 1% of the spent fuel is in the form of fissile plutonium 239. And the rest is in the form of fission products and minor actinides. Since the uranium and plutonium can be recycled and utilized for fuel, only 3% or 4% of spent fuel can actually be considered as radioactive waste material.

Spent fuel cask stored on site

Spent Fuel Composition

95.6% uranium (0.83% of which is U-235)
2.9% stable fission products
0.9% plutonium (about two thirds fissile plutonium)
0.3% cesium & strontium (fission products)
0.1% iodine and technetium (fission products)
0.1% other long-lived fission products
0.1% minor actinides (americium, curium, neptunium)

So instead of the Federal government using the 30 billion dollars given to them by the utilities to simply throw away the spent fuel, I propose that the Federal government use that money along with additional Federal investment funds to dispose of 96% of the spent fuel by recycling the fissile material and converting it into clean energy.

I propose that a Federal Nuplex Corporation should be established in order to fund the construction of Federal Nuplexes in every State that is currently storing spent fuel at their nuclear power facilities and for every State willing to take in spent fuel from other states.

I envision Federal Nuplex facilities as consisting of:

1. Temporary storage areas for spent fuel cask recently imported from nuclear power facilities within the state

2. On site spent fuel reprocessing facilities to extract uranium and plutonium fuel on site utilization

3. On site uranium enrichment facilities to fabricate uranium fuel for on site reactors

4. 8 to 40 on site nuclear reactors capable of using the recycled uranium and plutonium fuel for base-load electricity production

5. Long term storage cask for housing the reprocessed radioactive spent fuel fission products and minor actinides from nuclear reactors

6. Adjacent site synfuel production facilities for the production of carbon neutral gasoline, methanol, diesel fuel, jet fuel, dimethyl ether, hydrogen, oxygen, and ammonia for the transportation and industrial chemical industry

7. Off site (up to 80 kilometers) methanol-oxygen cogeneration and trigeneration power facilities for the production of peak-load electricity

8. On site storage facilities for radioactive waste from hospitals and radioactive research facilities

A State's spent fuel could be transported by rail to the Federal Nuplex facility located within the state. The residual nuclear waste produced after reprocessing would be stored on site for a few hundred years until either transmutation or final out of state deposition. On site reactors could also be decommissioned on site after energy production from a Nuplex has finally ceased. The safest and most economical way to decommission a reactor facility would be to allow the irradiated components of the facility to decay over the coarse of 100 to 200 years. So if you assume that several reactors would be gradually added to a nuplex over the course of the next 30 or 40 years and that these reactors will continue to operate for at least 60 to 80 years then Nuplex facilities would probably not be completely decommissioned and removed from its site until at least 300 years from now, or not until the 24th century. So any residual radioactive waste could remain on site at secured Nuplex facilities for a few hundred years until the material is eventually transmuted into shorter lived elements or permanently deposited in deep sea beds or in some extraterrestrial environment in the 24th century.

Spent fuel cask being transported by rail

A typical Nuplex could contain perhaps four AP 1000 light water reactors plus four ACR 1000 heavy water reactors. The recycled plutonium and uranium could be used inside of a thorium blanket inside of an ACR reactor to reduce plutonium production while producing more uranium 233. A Heavy Water Reactor utilizing thorium could in theory have an 80% conversion ratio or above almost to the point of being self-sustaining. The AP 1000 Light Water Reactor could use the recycled and enriched uranium to produce power or the plutonium as MOX, or the plutonium in a mixture of a thorium-uranium blanket

Federal Nuplexes would contain between 8 to 40 reactors. Concentrating so many reactors at one site could substantially reduce the capital cost of the power facility due to economies of mass production and large concentrated facilities could also reduced labor and security cost. Each Nuplex would also produce thousands of permanent jobs. But because of the heat island effect, it may be necessary to limit the number of nuclear reactors at a site to ten or less. However, if waste it is dissipated by locating several cooling ponds and dry cooling towers in all directions, several kilometers off site, then this effect could be mitigated. Alternatively, the heat island effect could be mitigated by utilizing the waste heat for seawater desalinization, greenhouse and hydroponic agriculture, or aquaculture.

Because the Federal government would be reprocessing domestic spent fuel on Federally protected facilities, there should be no danger of nuclear proliferation. Additionally, the export of Nuplex produced synfuels to other countries for electric power production, transportation, and industrial chemicals would enable foreign nations to benefit from the production of nuclear energy without the need for nuclear facilities or nuclear material.

Federal Nuplexes would eliminate the need for long term storage of spent fuel at commercial nuclear reactors sites. They would also substantially reduce the volume of spent fuel produced by the commercial nuclear industry while also substantially increasing the amount of nuclear energy produce for base-load electricity and synfuel production. As the Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has already noted, nuclear power plants already produce 100 times less radioactive material than coal power facilities. Nuplexes could furter reduce radwaste production by more than 1000 times relative coal power production. Finally, Federal Nuplexes would allow regional utilities to increase the number of reactors on existing sites without the long term trouble of managing and storing spent fuel.

References and Links

1. Waste Management in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

2. Short & Long Term Solutions for Nuclear Waste

3. Experts Weigh In On How The U.S. Should Handle Its Commercial Nuclear "Waste"

4. Public Power & the Future of Nuclear Energy

5. G. Olah, A. Goeppert, and G. Prakash, (2006) Beyond Oil and Gas: The Methanol Economy, Wiley-VCH Verlang, Weinheim, Germany

6. Green Freedom: A concept for producing carbon-neutral synthetic fuels and chemicals, Los Alamos Labs, November 2007 F.J. Martin and WL Kubic,

7. Gasoline from Air and Water

8. A Guidebook to Nuclear Reactors: Reactors, Fuel Cycles, The Issues of Nuclear Power
Anthony V. Nero Jr.

9. Nuclear Decommissioning

10. Technology and Policy Instruments for Mitigating the Heat-island Effect

11. Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste

New Papyrus


Marcel F. Williams said...

Obama Rejects Nuclear Waste Site

After 20-Year Fight (Update1)

By Daniel Whitten

Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama won’t let nuclear waste be stored at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, rejecting the project after 20 years of planning at a cost of at least $9 billion.

Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu “have been emphatic that nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain is not an option, period,” said department spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller. The federal budget plan Obama released today “clearly reflects that commitment,” she said.

“The new administration is starting the process of finding a better solution for management of our nuclear waste,” Mueller said in an e-mail today.

Obama’s decision leaves unresolved a long-term plan for nuclear waste, primarily from power plants, even as utility companies seek to build more reactors.

Under the disputed proposal, nuclear waste from reactors around the nation was to be shipped to Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, to be stored in tunnels 1,000-feet underground. The Energy Department had plans to store more than 109,000 metric tons at the site.

Radioactive waste is now spread among more than 120 sites in 39 states, according to the Energy Department. There are 104 operating commercial reactors in the U.S., and 17 applications are pending at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build 26 more reactors.

Chicago-based Exelon Corp., the largest U.S. operator of nuclear reactors, and New Orleans-based-Entergy Corp., the second-largest, are seeking permits for new reactors.

Obama’s plan will not curtail work on new reactors, said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the industry.

Earthquake Risk

Nevada opponents and environmental groups have filed lawsuits seeking to block the storage project on grounds that Yucca Mountain could be subject to earthquakes and that transporting waste across 43 states would create a hazard and a potential target for terrorists.

Under Obama’s budget plan the administration will devise a new strategy on waste. Spending on Yucca Mountain will be limited to the costs necessary to meet a legal requirement for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to process an application that former President George W. Bush submitted in June, the budget plan indicates.

The Energy Department didn’t meet a contractual obligation to take possession of nuclear waste by 1998, and has been found liable in court to claims by utilities for compensation for storing the waste.

Ed Davis, an industry consultant, said the administration is continuing the application to the NRC to avoid the liability the government would face if the application were abandoned.

$100 Billion

“If they terminate the license, it’s likely that that will constitute a full breach of the contract, which could potentially cost $100 billion,” Davis said.

Nuclear-power consumers have paid $29.6 billion into a fund intended for Yucca Mountain construction. Jerry Stouck, an attorney for some utilities in the dispute, said courts have so far awarded more than $1 billion to utility companies.

The government has to “either pay damages forever or find something to do with the waste,” Stouck said.

‘Lasting Victory’

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, hailed the decision in a statement on his Web site. “Make no mistake: this represents a significant and lasting victory in our battle to prevent Nevada from becoming the country’s toxic wasteland,” Reid said.

Congress in 1987 directed the Energy Department to study only Yucca Mountain as a possible nuclear repository, and Bush in 2002 signed a resolution designating it as the site.

The Energy Department estimated last year that the repository would cost $96.2 billion over the life of the project.

The project has been beset by legal and technical problems, hinging on questions about the safety. In June, the Energy Department submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission an application to build and operate the repository.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Whitten in Washington at
Last Updated: February 26, 2009 16:07 EST

Robert Hargraves said...

Marcel, this is an imaginative and high level idea. I don't understand the need for uranium enrichment facilities, especially difficult for uranium contaminated with highly radioactive materials. And why do you propose so many reprocessing facilities that the public opposes?

Another approach for the NuPlex corporation would be to use the liquid fluoride thorium reactor. It can consume the existing LWR spent fuel for start-up, without the need for ongoing reprocessing and separation of plutonium or other elements.

A tutorial is at
and an extensive website starts at

Marcel F. Williams said...

Thanks for your comments Robert!

The primary purpose of a Federal Nuplex is to immediately remove spent fuel from current nuclear facilities and to concentrate them into Federally secured intrastate facilities. This I believe can be done within any state in less than five to ten years.

Secondly, since many have argued that the public is terrified by the huge volume of nuclear waste accumulating at our commercial nuclear facilities, Federal Nuplexes would resolve this problem by substantially reducing the volume of radioactive material while also producing needed non-carbon dioxide polluting electricity for base-load power and carbon neutral synfuels.

The reprocessed uranium could also be used in Heavy Water (CANDU) reactors without the need for enrichment. And Heavy Water reactors like the new ACR 1000 can also use fissile material inside a thorium blanket. In fact, studies have shown that CANDUs could probably be easily modified into true breeders or near breeders if they used thorium.

I'd love to see a liquid fluoride thorium reactor and other breeding technologies in the near future. But it takes a very long time for such technologies to come on line commercially in the US.

The Pebble-Bed reactor, for instance, is actually an old technology that was thoroughly tested back in Germany. Yet a large scale demo in the US won't be ready until 2016 which probably means that full commercialization won't be ready until perhaps a decade later (2026?).

Hopefully, a new generation of fast reactors and ADS accelerator reactors will be commercially online in the US before the year 2030.

But right now, for at least a decade or two, I think we really have to work with the licensed nuclear technology that we have, not with what we wish we had.

Thanks you very much for the links!

Zawir Al-Hamidi said...

What I've learned in school is that the nuclear-waste must be disposed off under the sea bed. So, it couldn't harm the human being on the land. But, of course that it has it's own side effects to the marine life. If we disposed these waste thousands of feet under the mountains, than, the mountain could turn from the volcano into the nucleo.

snilon said...

Just a quick note...

It's not only President Obama and Senator Harry Reid that opposes the use of Yucca Mountain, but also the people who live there and in the surrounding areas, plus the people who live along the route that the train would take to transport the waste there. I think the number is in the millions.

Marcel F. Williams said...

I've opposed Yucca Mountain for years. There's no logical reason to throw away good nuclear fuel.

William Tucker argues the same thing in the Wall Street Journal in his article:

There's no such thing as nuclear waste:

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