VIDEO: Nuclear Waste and the Race for Resources
[SULLIVAN] These drums will stay here. The salt will come around and encapsulate it.
[JIM CONCA, NUCLEAR WASTE DISPOSAL EXPERT] It will basically reach the drums and start crushing them.
[SULLIVAN] This is Mother Nature’s trash compactor.
[CONCA] Yes, it’s a big, natural trash compactor.
[ASSURAS] We’ll take you to a part of the country which houses other radioactive refuse, and folks there are asking for more.
Plus, questions about storage, nuclear power safety, and its future. We talk to the man steering the country’s nuclear path. An interview with the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko.
And China’s ravenous appetite for energy.
[RAYOLA DOUGHER, AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE] I think there’s a part of America that admires, too, what China’s doing and how rapidly they’re growing, and may be a little anxious, too, about it.
[ASSURAS] What it means for the U.S. This is “energyNOW!”
Hello, I’m Thalia Assuras. Welcome to “energyNOW!”, a weekly look at America’s energy challenges and what we’re doing about them.
One of the most controversial challenges is where to put the radioactive waste from U.S. nuclear power plants. There are more than 71,000 tons of nuclear waste stranded at the nation’s 104 reactors. Put all those spent fuel rods together, and you’d get a pile as big as a football field and more than 20 feet tall. U.S. regulators say the spent fuel rods can stay at power plants safely for decades. But after an earthquake and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan last spring, the 30-year push for a permanent storage site in the U.S. intensified. Some of that’s political, but it’s also because a lot of the radiation that escaped at Fukushima came from spent nuclear fuel rods stored there. That brings us to the debate over using Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as this nation’s nuclear dump site.
It started during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when the Department of Energy was looking for a permanent storage site big enough to hold about 77,000 tons of nuclear waste. Congress intervened and told DoE to consider only Yucca Mountain, a remote desert location about 90 miles outside Las Vegas. Opposition in Nevada delayed the process. Critics feared radioactive leaks, saying the mountain wasn’t geologically sound, that it was too wet for long-term storage and too vulnerable to earthquakes. There was also concern that it would scare away tourists.
[SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV) MAJORITY LEADER, SEPTEMBER 24, 2008] It will never happen. Yucca Mountain will never come to be.
[ASSURAS] President Barack Obama essentially killed the project when he cut off funding and set up a blue-ribbon commission to come up with a new plan.
[BARACK OBAMA, FEBRUARY 16, 2010] We need to accelerate our efforts to find ways of storing this waste safely and disposing of it.
[ASSURAS] The government has already spent $15 billion at Yucca drilling a five-mile long tunnel. Most of that money came from rate payers throughout the country. Now, with Yucca shut down, proponents are fighting back.
[REP. DOC HASTINGS, (R) WASHINGTON] As far as I’m concerned, Yucca Mountain is the repository.
[ASSURAS] But Republican presidential candidates are singing a much different tune.
[FORMER GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, OCTOBER 18, 2011] The idea that 49 states can tell Nevada we want to give you our nuclear waste doesn’t make a lot of sense.
[GOVERNOR RICK PERRY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, OCTOBER 18, 2011] He’s hit the nail right on the head.
[ASSURAS] Well, while all that political back and forth goes on, there’s one place in the U.S. that’s already running a nuclear waste storage depot, using something you find on your kitchen table. Lee Patrick Sullivan took a tour of what could be a potential solution to the nuclear waste problem, in this “energyNOW!” Spotlight.
[SULLIVAN] There’s a place in Carlsbad, New Mexico, that’s been successfully taking shipments of nuclear waste for 12 years. It’s called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP for short.
[ROGER NELSON] Inside that shipping container is up to several kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium.
[SULLIVAN] Now, not all nuclear waste is the same. It’s put into three categories. Low level — that’s mostly the stuff from your local hospital or dentist’s office; high level waste — this is where the spent fuel from nuclear power plants comes in; and in between there is TRU waste, which is short for Transuranic waste. It’s the hats, boots, and tools used during the U.S. government’s weapons program. You know, the folks that made the atomic bomb. And it’s that TRU waste that’s being deposited here at WIPP.
[Alert sounding] Most of the material isn’t harmful unless it’s touched, but about 5% is what’s known as “hot waste,” meaning it puts out airborne radiation. Still, Chief Scientist Roger Nelson says, these shipping containers are safe.
[NELSON] That canister could have parked right next to a school bus full of children in a traffic jam, and it’s perfectly safe in that configuration.
[SULLIVAN] I’m going to the dentist next week to have this back molar looked at. When I get x-rays will I get more radiation at the dentist’s?
[NELSON] Much more.
[SULLIVAN] Once trucks are done unloading the containers of nuclear waste, the process of disposal begins.
To give you an example of how this material is contained, this is the lid of the outer shipping container. There’s another lid right there, and inside that are these barrels right here. Think of it as a radioactive matryoshka doll.
From there, the barrels are taken down to the WIPP salt mines. And it’s those salt mines that make WIPP a great place for storing nuclear waste. Salt continually seals its own cracks, making it essentially nonporous. It’s those properties that got the attention of the National Academy of Sciences in 1957, when they said salt caverns are the best disposal sites for nuclear waste.
We were invited down to the salt mines for a rare look. We’re taken down on a freight elevator, about a half-mile underground, into one of the largest salt deposits on Earth.
The roof, the walls, everything is made of salt. Even what we’re driving on.
[CONCA] Yes, it’s all sodium chloride, table salt salt.
[SULLIVAN] There hasn’t been water here for more than 250 million years. That predates dinosaurs and, of course, humans. And geologists say it will be the same, well after humans are gone from the Earth.
So this is normal salt that you would find on a table.
[CONCA] Right, sodium chloride.
[SULLIVAN] Tastes like salt.
[CONCA] Yep, it tastes like salt.
[SULLIVAN] It doesn’t taste like nuclear waste, though.
[CONCA] No, and it never will.
[SULLIVAN] Miners have carved out enough space for 600,000 drums filled with radioactive material.
The star of the show.
[CONCA] Yes, so this is why we’re here. This is nuclear waste.
[SULLIVAN] The walls and ceilings of these salt caverns actually close in at a rate of 3 inches every year.
These drums will stay here. The salt will come around and encapsulate them.
[CONCA] Right. It will basically reach the drums and start crushing them in about 10 to 15 years, so it’s fairly quick.
[SULLIVAN] This is Mother Nature’s trash compactor.
[CONCA] Yes, it’s a big, natural trash compactor.
[SULLIVAN] WIPP employs about 1,300 people. Recent polls suggest those jobs, coupled with a sense of civic duty, has the majority of Carlsbad residents supporting the nuclear storage site. That support has some nuclear waste experts wondering if WIPP could take the place of the controversial Yucca Mountain site.
[RICK McLEOD, SAVANNAH RIVER SITE REUSE ORGANIZATION] We believe Yucca is the right place for nuclear storage. If not, we hope maybe the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant out in New Mexico could be another alternative.
[SULLIVAN] For now, federal law blocks WIPP from accepting highly radioactive spent fuel rods, which continue to build up at the nation’s nuclear reactor sites. First, they are cooled in deep pools of water and later transferred into giant canisters called dry casks.
To learn more about dry cask storage, we came here to Virginia, to the Surry nuclear facility. And the folks here at Surry just don’t practice dry cask storage, they invented it.
They sit on concrete slabs, just a short distance away from the reactor building.
[JERRY BISCHOF, SURRY POWER STATION] We had expected that at some point, the federal government would take receipt of the nuclear fuel and a number of years of construction at Yucca Mountain certainly looked like that would be feasible in the immediate future, but that has not come to fruition.
[SULLIVAN] As for WIPP, they’re looking for Congress to expand their mandate to accept other forms of low-level waste.
But what about these canisters? Why can’t they be brought to New Mexico?
Is this a good spot for it? Is that a political question?
[NELSON] That’s a political question that has lots of controversy associated with it.
[SULLIVAN] As a scientist, could it?
[NELSON] As a scientist, the waste throughout the entire complex, all nuclear waste, salt is the best disposal option.
[SULLIVAN] There is a drawback. Once encased in salt, it’s very hard to go back and retrieve nuclear fuel rods. That’s something the U.S. might want to do in the future because spent fuel rods can be reprocessed and used again.
Back at the Surry nuclear plant in Virginia, folks have been waiting so long for a place to send their nuclear waste, they’ve come up with a new generation of dry casks.
[BISCHOF] The great thing about the horizontal storage modules is that inside this bunker is the canister that we could actually use for shipment.
[SULLIVAN] Now, all they need is the shipping address. In Carlsbad, New Mexico, Lee Patrick Sullivan, “energyNOW!”
[ASSURAS] The WIPP site in New Mexico just got its 10,000th shipment of radioactive waste. Plus, officials told Lee Patrick they will complete their mission of collecting DoE defense-related waste by 2015, and that’s 15 years earlier than the deadline set by Congress. And, as Lee Patrick told us, they’ve got lots of room for more and would be happy to have it.
The world entered the atomic age in the 1940s, when the U.S. built nuclear bombs to end World War II. By the 1950s, other countries had developed their own atom bombs, and the prospect of nuclear war was very real. But President Dwight Eisenhower also pushed for peaceful ways to harness the power of the atom, laying the foundation for today’s nuclear energy industry, as you’ll see in this energyTHEN from 1955.
[Film projector runs] [Dramatic soundtrack plays]
[NARRATOR] Information about the beneficial uses of atomic energy knows no national boundaries. The facts are available today. For nuclear energy isn’t waiting to help people everywhere in some brave new world of the future, the peaceful atom is here now, to serve what President Eisenhower has termed the needs rather than the fears of mankind. In a piece of uranium the size of a walnut, there’s as much potential energy as in the amount of coal to fill a 100-car train. The question is how to get this power, how to put this vast energy to work in the power plants to run the turbines of tomorrow. And here at the Experimental Breeder Reactor, known as the EBR, way back in December 1951 on an isolated desert in Idaho, was produced the first useful electrical power from the atom.
[ASSURAS] The EBR, the plant you just saw, was the first to generate useable electricity from nuclear energy. It still stands today in eastern Idaho, though it’s now a nuclear energy museum that you can visit during the summer.
Still to come, the future of nuclear energy in America. An interview with the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko.
[JACZKO] We will look at the things that happened in Fukushima Daiichi and see if there aren’t some lessons we can learn.
[ASSURAS] Plus, the world’s growing appetite for energy. What’s at stake for the U.S. in the race for resources against China?
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[TEXT ON SCREEN] Please contact our General Manager, Hardy Spire, 202-621-2916,email@example.com.
[ASSURAS] We continue with nuclear energy and its challenges. Besides needing to figure out what to do with all the radioactive waste from power plants, there are plenty of other critical questions, especially since the Fukushima disaster in Japan. To answer some of them, we turn to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, created in 1974 and charged with overseeing nuclear power companies and ensuring the safe use of radioactive materials. I recently sat down with the NRC’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko.
I’d like to begin by asking about the storage of spent nuclear fuel rods. It’s part of the discussion in our show. And because we all think about Fukushima. Such rods contributed to radiation release in that disaster. There is no permanent site here in the United States because the Yucca Mountain storage site has been taken off the table. So, are the spent fuel rods here safe?
[JACZKO] Our job at the NRC is to make sure that they are. We work with all of the power plants that have spent fuel that is stored in a variety of different ways, in wet pools similar to what we saw in Japan, as well as, in some cases, they’ve taken that fuel out of these pools and put them into hardened dry cask storage. That really is, we think, a very safe and secure way to store this fuel for at least 60, 70, or up to 100 years.
[ASSURAS] Why not, long-term, put the nuclear waste in the WIPP place, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, for example, in New Mexico, these salt caverns? They tell us they have room, the technology is there, so why not that, long-term?
[JACZKO] Well, in general, the commission believes that a geologic repository is really ultimately the right long-term solution for spent fuel. The challenge that we faced as a nation — and we’re not the only country that struggles with this issue — is where to find that repository.
[ASSURAS] I bring WIPP up again, because that area says, “Sure, we’d be happy to have the stuff.” Would it work?
[JACZKO] Well, it’s a type of material, it’s more of a salt environment than a granite or rock environment like Yucca Mountain. And we haven’t studied that particular site, but in general, we believe it’s possible to store spent fuel in this type of environment, as well as potentially many others.
[ASSURAS] Is Yucca really dead?
[JACZKO] Right now, we’re not working on the application. The Department of Energy is not, so absent some kind of direction from Congress, it’s something that we’ve moved on from and I wouldn’t anticipate any additional work, and we have a lot of things to do. Certainly, because of the lack of a permanent geologic repository, we are looking to make sure that spent fuel will continue to be stored safely and securely.
[ASSURAS] So we’re safe now?
[JACZKO] Absolutely. We believe that the methods to maintain this fuel are safe and secure, as I said, whether it’s in wet storage or dry storage. These provide a good way to maintain safety. But we’re not going to rest there. We will take a look at the things that happened in Fukushima Daiichi and see if there aren’t some lessons we can learn, and we already know a few things that we think we can do better, and we’ll look to implement those in the future.
[ASSURAS] You know, at that time, you recommended that the evacuation zone around Fukushima should be 50 miles. In this country, the evacuation zone in the case of an accident is 10. There’s kind of a disconnect there. Should Americans feel comfortable with 10 miles when you recommended 50 at that particular time?
[JACZKO] I think Americans should feel comfortable that we have a regulator that’s willing to do what’s necessary in any situation. And we have evacuation planning zones in this country that go to 10 miles when we’re talking about evacuations and those kinds of things. We also plan out to about 50 miles for kind of the later effects of an accident, where we might have to control food supplies or things like that. If we needed to in this country, the state governments, or local governments that ultimately make these decisions, they could go to larger evacuations if the situation dictated that they should.
[ASSURAS] The commission has some votes coming up on a new design, which is the Westinghouse AP1000, and whether to move ahead with the building of a couple new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina, which would be the first since the ’70s, really, when you think about it. When are the votes coming up, and are you recommending approval on all these things?
[JACZKO] We anticipate probably the end of the year or early next year, we’ll be at a point where we can make some final decisions on both the AP1000 design and then those applications for plants in Georgia and then in South Carolina that would use that design. But right now, our staff has done a very thorough review. The staff at the agency has found that at this point they believe that these designs are safe. And then the plants, themselves, the applications have met our standards.
[ASSURAS] Where is this country going to go when it comes to nuclear power, as far as you’re concerned?
[JACZKO] That’s always a difficult question for the regulator. Our job is to make sure that, if people choose nuclear — if utilities decide that that’s economically viable, that it meets all of their requirements for electricity generating sources, that that can be done safely and securely. So, if there’s going to be new nuclear in this country, then my job is to make sure that that’s safe and secure.
[ASSURAS] You can watch more of my interview with Chairman Jaczko on our Web site — energyNOW.com. Plus, while you’re there, we want to know what you think about storing spent nuclear fuel. This week’s question… “How do you think the U.S. should dispose of nuclear waste? Bury in a remote place. Store it safely at nuclear plants. Re-process it so the fuel can be used again.” Or “There’s no safe way to deal with nuclear waste.” We’ll tell you the results next week.
An Italian inventor has conducted what some are saying is a successful small test of the Holy Grail of energy production — cold fusion, a low-energy nuclear reaction that could theoretically produce endless, self-sustaining and incredibly cheap energy. And that’s what’s in this week’s “energyNOW!” hotZONE. The inventor, Andrea Rossi, tested what he calls his E-Cat, or Energy Catalyzer, on October 28. Rossi says his technology uses a secret catalyst that reacts with small amounts of nickel powder and hydrogen gas to create clean energy in the form of heat, no radioactive materials, nuclear waste or pollution. Rossi tested the E-Cat in Italy for an unnamed U.S. company and claims it produced in five hours about as much energy as 70 gallons of gasoline contains. There’s plenty of mystery and skepticism surrounding Rossi’s cold fusion test, but he says the E-Cat is going into mass production soon.
Coming up next… we take you to energy-hungry China, gobbling up more and more resources to feed its needs, to find out what’s at stake for the U.S.
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[ASSURAS] Welcome back. Right now, the U.S. and China are neck and neck in total energy consumption. But that’s about to change. This fall, the U.S. government updated its global energy forecast, predicting China’s consumption will almost double America’s by 2035. While renewable energy sources will meet some of that increased demand, the Energy Information Administration says much more will come from finite resources — fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. “energyNOW!” Chief Correspondent Tyler Suiters went to China for a look at the race for resources in our continuing look at “The China Factor.”
[SUITERS] A tranquil garden tucked away in central Beijing. A series of skyscrapers along Shanghai’s Pudong District. This international manufacturing plant in Tianjin. All of them powered primarily by coal. It supplies about 75% of China’s electricity. And demand for that electricity just keeps growing.
[THOMAS BOHNER, ALSTOM BEIZHONG POWER PLANT] This one is a 600-megawatt generator rotor.
[SUITERS] Thomas Bohner’s manufacturing plant makes parts for new coal-fired power plants. And it is a hot market. China is now burning through about three times as much coal as it did just a decade ago.
[BOHNER] The Chinese economy is growing fast, so therefore there is a demand for energy.
[RICHARD YEUNG] Certainly, it’s a most important country for us.
[SUITERS] Richard Yeung heads Alstom Power’s China division.
[YEUNG] The China market, up until now, is around 50% of the global market demand in power plants.
[YEUNG] Half of the power plant demand in the world is in China.
[SUITERS] And the vast majority of total energy demand in both China and the U.S. involves fossil fuels. These countries are the world’s leading carbon emitters, and the world’s leading competitors for oil.
[STEVEN CHU, SECRETARY OF ENERGY] China now has the largest car market in the world. Last year they sold 16.7 million cars, in one year. They passed the United States.
[SUITERS] The result — the U.S. government says that in the next 25 years, America’s demand for transportation energy — primarily oil — will grow by about 14%. China’s demand will grow by more than 250%.
[DAVID PUMPHREY, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES] We and China basically share the same pool of oil and petroleum resources.
[SUITERS] David Pumphrey tracks energy security issues for a Washington think tank.
[PUMPHREY] One of the biggest energy security issues we face right now is China’s growth in terms of its own demand. So that’s really what is destabilizing energy markets.
[DOUGHER] I think there’s a part of America that admires, too, what China’s doing, and how rapidly they’re growing, and may be a little anxious, too, about it.
[SUITERS] Rayola Dougher is a senior economic advisor at the American Petroleum Institute. Her concern — the U.S. may now be outgunned in the competition for international oil supplies.
[DOUGHER] We have to bring the best to the table, when you’re trying to purchase these resources. Can you outbid the other guy? And China’s been doing a good job buying up resources.
[SUITERS] In 2009 and 2010, state-owned Chinese companies spent almost $50 billion on global oil and natural gas deals. And according to business consulting firm IHS, last year alone, about a quarter of all the money spent buying up the world’s oil and gas assets came from China.
Along with all the acquisitions, Beijing has loaned tens of billions of dollars to countries like Russia, Venezuela, and Angola, to secure access to their rich oil supplies.
[DOUGHER] They can come into a region and say, “We’ll build you a school, we’ll build the road, we’ll do this, we’ll do that,” and they can outbid our companies if they want to.
[SUITERS] Among China’s recent partnerships, opening an oil import pipeline from Russia. Buying up part of a Brazilian subsidiary of a Spanish oil company, with rights to a gigantic deep-sea oil and gas field. And purchasing a stake in an oil sands company in Canada, an area where the U.S. already gets a significant amount of its imported oil, an amount that would increase if the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada through the U.S. gets built. But Pumphrey says these Chinese deals aren’t about energy security alone.
[PUMPHREY] They really want to go out there and make money.
[SUITERS] A mutual goal that’s leading to international cooperation as well as competition. One area of shared interest — shale gas, natural gas trapped in shale rock. Chinese native Kang Wu leads the China Energy Project at Hawaii’s East-West Center.
[KANG WU] Maybe in 15, 20 years, then the role of unconventional gas will be very important for the country.
[SUITERS] The U.S. and China hold about a third of the world’s recoverable reserves of shale gas, but unlike the U.S., China is only just beginning to tap that resource. This year, China completed its very first shale well. A process that now takes several weeks in the U.S. took 11 months in China. So China is investing in American know-how, spending more than $1.5 billion in the last year for stakes in a pair of U.S. shale ventures.
[KANG WU] So the significance is, that means China, the Chinese national oil companies, continue to push overseas. They go pretty much everywhere.
[SUITERS] And unless both countries can agree to burn fewer fossil resources, Secretary Chu says this race won’t have a winner.
[CHU] Their leadership makes no bones about it. They say the climate’s changing. Humans have caused it. If we don’t do something about it, it will be devastating to China and the rest of the world.
[PUMPHREY] I think it’s become very easy to point to China, well, that’s the cause of our problems, when, in some ways, we are the cause of our problems and we need to deal with them ourselves.
[SUITERS] In China, Tyler Suiters, “energyNOW!”
[ASSURAS] A quick note — “energyNOW!”‘s initial funding comes from the American Clean Skies Foundation, which is funded in part by Chesapeake Energy, a major player in the natural gas industry. We are editorially independent.
And some more perspective about just how radically China’s energy demand has changed. It produced more oil than it could use as recently as 20 years ago. An even more dramatic turnaround — in 2008, China exported more coal than it imported. By the very next year, 2009, China had to import more than 100 million tons of coal to meet its own demand.
And that’s it for this week’s “energyNOW!” We want to know what you want to know, so reach out to us on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. Search for us at energyNOWnews. And check out Web extras on our site — energyNOW.com. I’m Thalia Assuras. See you next week.
Next week on “energyNOW!”, when the wind blows. The challenge of getting wind-generated electricity from the farm to the power grid. And an idea inspired by the kite to harness the power of the wind.
[ANNOUNCER] Help us make “energyNOW!” a continuing success in our second year. To keep growing, we want to form new partnerships with foundations and corporations who are equally concerned about America’s energy future. Join us in bringing our message to more and more viewers. Please have your company or foundation contact “energyNOW!”
[TEXT ON SCREEN] Please contact our General Manager, Hardy Spire, 202-621-2916,firstname.lastname@example.org.