SRS nuke waste has value, expert says

Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 9:53 AM
Last updated 6:48 PM
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COLUMBIA -- There might be money in nuclear waste.

The director of the Savannah River National Laboratory told a South Carolina panel last week that some of the facility’s legacy waste presents a “tremendous commercial opportunity.”

Terry Michalske was one of a handful of presenters before the S.C. Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council, which heard updates Thursday on the U.S. Department of Energy’s projects.

“We have the opportunity here to make a decision about whether we disposition this material into a waste stream or we take the extra step and capture its value for the commercial market,” he said, suggesting leaders explore a public-private partnership.

Michalske said the federal agency had commissioned the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business to study the business opportunity to expand production of helium-3, a byproduct of tritium.

He said helium-3, a byproduct of tritium, can cost up to $5,000 per liter on the commercial market. The Moore study estimated demand for the material to be 15,000 to 25,000 liters per year, said Michalske.

Helium-3 has various uses, including radiation detection by homeland security officials at border crossings and ports to stop nuclear material from being smuggled in. It’s also used by the oil and gas industry and in medical imaging.

Michalske also pointed to americium-241, which is extracted as plutonium is processed. It’s used for oil and gas recovery and discovery, home smoke detectors, and other purposes.

He called americium-241 “irreplaceable.”

“We will not make that again,” said the SRNL director. “The Savannah River Site is really the only complete nuclear management complex that has the opportunity to capture that economic benefit for this region.”

As for whether the energy department may extract and commercialize specific assets, that’s up to Congress to authorize.

“They’d like to hear from you,” Michalske told the state panel.

The Savannah River National Lab is the applied R&D lab at the energy department’s Savannah River Site, which covers parts of Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties. SRS stores waste from Cold War nuclear weapons production, among other activities.

Federal officials are trying to figure out what to do with the nation’s spent fuel, which is housed at 104 commercial power reactors across the nation. An earlier plan to store it in a Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada was shelved by the Obama Administration.

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