National nuclear waste issues to be tackled by Vanderbilt-led multi-university team

Nuclear power might be “green power,” but only if the nuclear waste is managed properly.

Vanderbilt is leading a multi-university consortium of engineers and scientists who have learned a lot during the last ten years about how to handle nuclear waste. By helping the nation through the U.S. Department of Energy find the best ways to clean up nuclear weapons production sites and to dispose of nuclear wastes safely, these nuclear waste experts hope to leverage their knowledge to help the U.S. find safe ways to effectively manage nuclear waste from civilian nuclear power as well as defense sources, which they see as an critical component if the nation is to accept expanded nuclear power generating capacities.

The multi-university Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation will be funded by a DOE cooperative agreement initially of $6 million per year for the next five years to continue to work with DOE and its stakeholders on how to clean up legacy wastes from the nuclear arms race and to contribute to the technical foundation for safe management of  nuclear waste from a wide range of sources.

Partners in CRESP  with Vanderbilt include faculty members from Rutgers University, University of Pittsburgh, New York University, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Howard University, University of Arizona, and Oregon State University.

The team will kick off their collaborative effort with a meeting at Vanderbilt Dec. 7-8.

Although CRESP focuses on site remediation, its work requires engineers and scientists to understand the complete life cycle of nuclear power generation, weapons production and environmental impacts from nuclear weapons tests.

CRESP has since 1995 been researching ways to advance cost-effective clean up of the nation’s nuclear weapons production waste sites and test facilities. Vanderbilt will lead the organization into a new phase of development that will improve technical clarity based on experience developed earlier by CRESP to help guide both nuclear weapons sites remediation and safe management of wastes produced by nuclear power plants.

“Since inception, CRESP has proven its capability and usefulness to the nation in investigating and recommending solutions to nuclear risk management challenges,” said David S. Kosson, Vanderbilt professor and chairman of civil and environmental engineering and co-principal investigator of CRESP.

Co-principal investigator Charles W. Powers, Vanderbilt professor of environmental engineering, noted that, even not considering nuclear power generation expansion plans, there is much remaining to be done to handle nuclear waste already generated. Clean up of the U.S. nuclear complex has already cost more than $70 billion, with future costs projected to exceed $150 billion. On the civilian side, spent nuclear fuel is currently stored in 39 states at some 122 sites, awaiting final disposition. Plans to use Yucca Mountain as the national nuclear waste repository have been sidetracked by a variety of technical and political challenges, and despite nearly $6 billion spent to develop the facility, no firm date has been set for completion.

“The proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership raises additional nuclear management issues,” Kosson said. “The plan to reduce waste management problems and to promote non-proliferation through this partnership depends in large measure on spent fuel reprocessing, which presents a variety of new challenges for nuclear waste management.

“There is great overlap technically between the remediation of former nuclear weapons residuals and the effective and safe management of peaceful nuclear power operations, so CRESP’s expertise will be made available to help integrate solutions for nuclear waste management.,” he said.

Co-principal investigator Charles Powers pointed out that “we cannot move into the future of expanded nuclear power generation without cleaning up the legacy wastes of the past.

“We must first solve nuclear waste management issues that have plagued defense and civilian nuclear waste management programs,” Powers said.