ARPA-E Energy Summit 2023: Waste Not?

March 23, 2023

ARPA-E Energy Summit 2023: Waste Not?

Industry Leaders Rethink the Nuclear Waste Challenge at the 2023 ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit

ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit (The Summit) — March 23, 2023 — A panel of experts spoke at The Summit on “Nuclear Power for our Low Carbon Future: Rethinking the Nuclear Waste Challenge.” Panelists included Dr. Bob Ledoux, Program Director, ARPA‑E; Dr. Jenifer Shafer, Program Director, ARPA‑E; Dr. Per Peterson, Professor, U.C. Berkeley; Sylvia Saltzstein, Manager of Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage, Transportation, Security, and Safeguards, R&D, Sandia National Laboratory; Jackie Siebens, Director of Policy and External Affairs, Oklo Inc.; and Dr. Kris Singh, Chief Executive Officer, Holtec International.

The energy transition will require a variety of low-carbon energy technologies and, while early in the transition, the premium for constant, on-demand power is becoming increasingly important. One option for low-carbon, baseload electricity is nuclear energy. Several advanced reactor companies are targeting deployment towards the latter part of this decade, though a common question relevant to their rapid deployment is, “What should we do about the waste?”

The current disposal plan, decided in the late 1970s and endorsed multiple times since, for nuclear waste is to permanently dispose of the material in a deep geological repository. However, the existing nuclear waste sits in interim storage at approximately 100 locations throughout the United States and the suitability of a potential deep geological repository to effectively sequester nuclear waste from advanced reactors is unclear. Fortunately, technologies, including waste forms, recycling, transmutation, etc., have dramatically evolved and the potential to reassess optimal disposal options is timely. Panelists discussed how potential technological innovations could have a significant impact on the viability of various disposal options.

Progress is already being made with new types of advanced reactors such as high-temperature gas, sodium-cooled, and molten salt reactors that generate less high-level waste and, in most instances, are capable of recycling fuel. In addition, ARPA-E has made a $160M overall investment in nuclear waste programs for advanced reactors as well as the current inventory.

Said Dr. Singh, “It shouldn’t be called ‘nuclear waste.’ In time, it could be really valuable. When platinum was initially discovered, people threw it away because it wasn’t silver. When oil was initially discovered, industry wasn’t around to really use it.”
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