Congress has been drafting the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2019 to help solve our current nuclear waste impasse. If successful, nuclear waste from power plants could be transferred to interim storage sites while work on a permanent repository progresses.
The waste each of us would generate over our lifetime from nuclear energy would not fill a soda can. So the issue is really its radioactivity, not its volume. My preference is to first reduce both the radioactivity and the volume of the waste before isolating what remains.
However, the direct burial of our wastes appear to be cheaper than most alternatives today.
The good news is that there is growing bipartisan support for removing nuclear waste from sites with shut-down reactors or seismically active locations. If the impasse finally breaks, the growth of nuclear power will depend on reducing its costs and increasing its benefits per kilowatt-hour compared with other sources of energy over several decades.
This is why the small nuclear reactors such as the NuScale reactor being developed with the Idaho National Laboratory are of interest. They offer reduced upfront construction costs, bulk amounts of carbon-free energy, and a more reliable and secure energy grid.
Would a small reactor in South Dakota be beneficial?
First, we will certainly generate more renewable energy in the future for ourselves and our neighbors. Small reactors can ramp their carbon-free power up and down when renewables are not enough. The alternative is to burn coal or natural gas because enough energy storage will not be available.
When renewable energy is plentiful, small reactors can instead produce hydrogen for transportation, energy storage for the grid, or a feedstock for the production of chemicals. Chemicals of interest to South Dakota include ammonia for fertilizers, propane for grain dryers, biofuels, bio-based products, and pharmaceuticals.
Small reactors will also provide the necessary process heat for making those chemicals or recycling materials used in renewables. If we could pull carbon from the air or extract carbon from biomass, then the need for fossil fuels would be reduced even further.
Moreover, it would be interesting if biomass or biofuel were to replace natural gas as the preferred feedstock for industrial hydrogen.
A nuclear reactor in South Dakota is not really conceivable without first solving the nuclear waste impasse. Then the reactor must be walk-away safe, support economic development, complement renewables, and be cost-effective over its life cycle.
But a small reactor may just fit the bill.