Step Aside, 3-D Printing: This Is General Electric's Next Big Idea

How much nuclear waste does your state hold? Source: Nuclear Energy Institute.

Innovation is synonymous with General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) . Of course, you should expect nothing less from a company that traces its roots to Thomas Edison and is involved in industries ranging from energy to health care, industrial life sciences to financial services. In the past several years alone, the company has led the charge in creating ultra-efficient (and giant) wind turbines and sophisticated additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, solutions.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that General Electric has played a major role in creating novel solutions to a growing global problem: nuclear waste. While a collaboration with Hitachi (NASDAQOTH: HTHIY  ) , called GE Hitachi, has been providing creative technologies for the nuclear industry for more than 50 years, the invention with the greatest game-changing potential may have yet to arrive. In fact, it could make America safer by reducing nuclear storage by 96%, supply nearly 10% of the nation's electricity (in addition to the nearly 19% already supplied by nuclear energy), and provide long-term certainty for atomic-energy producers such as Exelon (NYSE: EXC  )  regarding waste storage and disposal.

However, to really appreciate the magnitude of the solution, we must first quantify America's nuclear waste stockpiles.

Nuclear waste by the numbers
Despite the ultra-clean safety profile of atomic energy compared with other energy sources, the growing problem of radioactive waste -- and its storage -- hasn't exactly boosted its public image. The average nuclear power plant produces 20 metric tons of used nuclear fuels, or UNFs, each year. Meanwhile, the entire American nuclear industry -- the world's largest -- generates more than 2,000 metric tons of UNFs annually and has generated more than 70,000 metric tons in the past 40 years. And we're far from the finish line: More than 120,000 metric tons of UNFs will be produced over the lifetime of currently operating American reactors.

That's a lot of nuclear waste. To put it in perspective, if fuel assemblies were laid end-to-end and stacked 21 feet tall, then 120,000 metric tons of UNFs would cover two football fields.

It's important to note that the economic consequences of waste disposal are largely overblown. Utility companies pay fees into the Nuclear Waste Fund for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced from nuclear energy that covers the costs of disposal. The fund collects close to $750 million in fees each year and, at present, contains more than $26 billion (similar funds exist for decommissioning activities).

For instance, Exelon, which is the nation's largest nuclear-energy provider, has paid most of the fees for the state of Illinois. It should be no surprise that there is a strong correlation between the top five nuclear states and contributions to the fund:

State

Metric Tons of UNFs

Nuclear Waste Fund Contributions

Illinois

9,010

$1,936 million

Pennsylvania

6,290

$1,688 million

South Carolina

4,210

$1,319 million

North Carolina

3,670

$897 million

California

2,970

$873 million

UNFs data as of December 2012. Fund contributions as of December 2010. Source: Nuclear Energy Institute.

Nonetheless, the current "best" solution for storing UNFs in geological repositories -- none of which is in planning -- until they decay to harmless products, a process that can take hundreds of thousands of years, is woefully inadequate and far from a long-term solution. Why not turn the problem into a solution that can benefit all of humanity?

Meet the Advanced Recycling Center
It may seem ridiculous to think any company could monetize something as hazardous and expensive as used nuclear fuel, but the Advanced Recycling Center, or ARC, isn't that ridiculous. In fact, it's based on technology that was first conjured up at Argonne National Laboratory 30 years ago. And we're not talking about a simple reprocessing technology. Instead, we're talking about a recycling technology that combines reprocessing with energy generation.

Consider that nuclear fuel waste can be broken down into three products: (1) uranium for reuse in power generation, (2) fission products for stabilization and geological storage, and (3) high-level waste known as transuranics, or elements heavier than uranium. While UNFs from a light water reactor (the most common type of nuclear reactor) yield about 95% uranium, 4% fission products, and 1% transuranics; traditional reprocessing leaves 20% of the original volume of waste behind to be stored in a geological repository. It would actually be a suitable solution (for now), but world reprocessing capacity is severely limited. Only 31% of the nuclear waste produced worldwide has been reprocessed, which has put generators such as Exelon in a bind for storage.

Enter the ARC. The creation from General Electric and Hitachi consumes all of the long-lived waste products (uranium and transuranics) of the original UNFs, or about 96% by volume. Fission products, the other 4%, will still be sent to geologic repositories for long-term storage but decay in a fraction of the time.

Source: GE Hitachi.

At the heart of the ARC lies a 622 MW power block that consists of two Power Reactor Innovative Small Module, or PRISM, reactors. They're the first Generation IV reactors the industry has designed to date -- by comparison, the two new reactors at Southern's Plant Vogtle are "cutting-edge" Generation III units -- and are ready to be implemented for commercial use. The sodium-cooled reactors can operate at higher energies, and thus consume very heavy elements (transuranics) that plague the logistics of disposing UNFs. It's a giant leap forward for the nuclear industry.

Consider that a fleet of 26 ARCs could safely consume America's 120,000 metric tons of UNFs expected to be produced over the lifetime of the nation's nuclear fleet. In addition, the ARC armada would increase national carbon-free nuclear capacity by 50% and supply 10% of the nation's electricity -- a total that would top the nuclear capacity of every country except France.

For now, GE Hitachi is focusing its efforts on the United Kingdom and the Sellafield site in West Cumbria, which maintains the country's plutonium stockpiles. Since the energy density per volume of plutonium is much higher than that of uranium, a PRISM fleet at Sellafield could produce enough energy to power the United Kingdom for the next 100 years.

Source: GE Hitachi.

Yes, the entire country. Yes, for a full century.

What's the holdup?
While the PRISM reactor and ARC are ready for commercialization, it may take some time before they are implemented. Why? Nuclear waste is owned and regulated by international governments, rather than individual companies, which means the decision to build an ARC rests solely in the hands of our elected officials. I've proposed using a portion of the more than $26 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund of the United States to help build an exploratory power plant to demonstrate the technology. The smaller size of the facility would allow for much cheaper capital costs compared with larger nuclear facilities currently being constructed. If it works -- and there's no reason to believe it won't -- we'll be on a truly sustainable path for the future of nuclear energy.

The problem of safely disposing UNFs requires cooperation on a national and international level. It's time that international governments awaken to new technologies that can effectively manage humanity's stockpiles of high-level wastes and reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation by more quickly consuming such fuels. I believe it's only a matter of time before the first PRISM reactor is constructed -- the United Kingdom is currently evaluating its options -- which would catapult General Electric and Hitachi to the forefront of not only nuclear energy technology, but nuclear energy generation, too. Given the amazing advantages of the ARC, the modularity of its PRISM power blocks, and the enormous global market opportunity awaiting a sustainable solution to nuclear waste; I would certainly keep my eye on developments surrounding the next-generation reactor.

Don't think the ARC can spur domestic nuclear growth?
You may not believe in GE Hitachi's ARC until you see it gain market traction, but another domestic energy trend is impossible to ignore. Record oil and natural gas production is revolutionizing the United States' energy position. Finding the right plays while historic amounts of capital expenditures are flooding the industry will pad your investment nest egg. For this reason, The Motley Fool is offering a comprehensive look at three energy companies set to soar during this transformation in the energy industry. To find out which three companies are spreading their wings, check out the special free report, "3 Stocks for the American Energy Bonanza." Don't miss out on this timely opportunity; click here to access your report -- it's absolutely free. 


Read/Post Comments (26) | Recommend This Article (41)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 12, 2014, at 11:39 PM, Angelemerald wrote:

    General Electric and Hitachi's ARC is a great and much needed innovation. However, both companies, and especially GE, need to invest more of their efforts/capital in renewable energy projects like solar and wind. GE has certainly invested in these areas but they can and should do more. One of the biggest needs in solar, from what I can see, is to reduce costs enough so that American homes can get plugged into solar self sufficiency. This will help keep many American homes plugged in when storms like Sandy come around again. We have to do it: Make a commitment to never have another Fukushima.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 12:46 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @Angelemerald

    "Make a commitment to never have another Fukushima."

    Data from the World Health Organization was recently compiled to show that nuclear energy is by far the safest energy source in existence. For every terrawatt hour of electricity generation, there were 161 deaths related to coal, 4 for natural gas, 0.15 for wind, and only 0.04 related to nuclear energy.

    Additionally, General Electric is perhaps the world's leading investor in renewable technology. They've made tremendous strides in the last decade in numerous areas.

    Thanks for your comment,

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 5:27 PM, Wiktor wrote:

    To conform to the rules for comments, let me just say that in dealing with this subject Maxx is in way over his head.

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 11:59 AM, SkepikI wrote:

    <It may seem ridiculous to think any company could monetize something as hazardous and expensive as used nuclear fuel>

    What seems ridiculous is to throw away exceedingly valuable radionuclide material, "unburned" fuel, and do it in a way that INCREASES cost and risk. Thanks to the worst president in my lifetime who banned reprocessing, J. Carter. We actually manufacture medical and industrial radioactive material by sending base elements through research reactors to make them Cesium 137 or Cobalt 60 or..., while we throw away those same materials in spent fuel. Ludicrous.

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 12:54 PM, shredlee wrote:

    If it sounds too good to be true why isn't it already being done? The technology is not new.

    The author fails to even touch on the problems with this solution, starting with it is extremely difficult and dangerous to produce the metal alloy fuel from something like plutonium.

    Secondly you make it sound like this is on the verge of taking off when in fact at a minimum it would take 5 years of planning and another 5 years of building at the British site alone. If the technology was to take off we are looking at 10 to 25 years out I'm guessing.

    I wish it was right around the corner but there are no easy fixes with this.

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 1:07 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @shredlee

    "If it sounds too good to be true why isn't it already being done? The technology is not new."

    Given that the PRISM is the only Generation IV reactor ready for commercial deployment, it would take time to incorporate the design into an application for regulatory approval, which can take several years. The two new reactors at Vogtle are "new", but are Generation III.

    "The author fails to even touch on the problems with this solution, starting with it is extremely difficult and dangerous to produce the metal alloy fuel from something like plutonium."

    The world has already reprocessed a great deal of plutonium to date, actually.

    http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Fuel-Re...

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 3:30 PM, MDMDoyle wrote:

    Watch "Pandora's Promise". Americans actually had safer nuclear technology comparable to Canadian Nuclear Technology. It physically cannot melt down like Chernobyl or Fukushima. The government shut down these programs because the current light water designs were scaled up faster and therefore more economical (by about 20%). 98% of the energy is still left in this nuclear "waste". And the only about 1% of it poses any threat about a century from now.

    Solar and Wind has had billions in dollars of subsidies and investment since the 70's. Currently makes up 1% of the power supply. Even if we doubled the last 40 years worth of solar and wind next year it would not keep up with the 3% energy increases annually. Its a pipe dream and solar panels are very detrimental to our environment when you consider the production process and materials used. Also you still need a back up power supply. Something Liquid Metal Battery Corp. is trying to solve.

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 4:43 PM, atkinskd wrote:

    Thorium and Cadillac makes for an interesting Google search. The technology was devised in the 60's. Research IMHO was snapped up by DoD for the Navy and has been willfully shunned ever since. I had a position in EXC back when it looked like it might take off. Given the NIMBY folks, regulations and the jobs lost because 1 tractor trailer replaces 300,000 cars of coal - they have one tough sell on their hands...oh and Thorium is plentiful the world over thereby nuking the energy markets. The MSR's can be air cooled, are meltdown proof - Laws of Physics, and modular. So the technology is there, the social stigma and job replacement are not.

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 5:02 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @MDMDoyle, @atkinskd, and other thorium enthusiasts,

    I wrote about thorium reactors last year, as I, too, think the technology could play a major role in the world's energy future. Unfortunately, advancing the technology will require more money and patience before it is ready for commercial use:

    http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2013/03/11/the-future-...

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 7:36 PM, Grandepiacere wrote:

    "Data from the World Health Organization was recently compiled to show that nuclear energy is by far the safest energy source in existence. For every terrawatt hour of electricity generation, there were 161 deaths related to coal, 4 for natural gas, 0.15 for wind, and only 0.04 related to nuclear energy"

    This sounds like a complete crock. How was this data collected? Stats are the biggest liars of all. You can make them say whatever you want. What deaths were included? Its not like the cancer they find in you comes with a little note saying it was caused by radioactive particles that made their way into your food chain.

    Pacific Tuna or Salmon anyone?

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 7:39 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @Grandepiacere,

    "Its not like the cancer they find in you comes with a little note saying it was caused by radioactive particles that made their way into your food chain."

    Nor do the heart attacks, cancers, respiratory ailments, or other diseases caused by air pollutants from burning fossil fuels. Although, I'm not sure what radioactive particles in food you are talking about.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 7:41 PM, Grandepiacere wrote:

    Consider for a second that the Christian era is a little more than 2000 years. Then consider that Plutonium 244 has a half life of 80 Million years. I'm sure no geologic events could possibly come along in 80 million years and that someone will be safe guarding our nuclear dumps sites in 2000 years. Please stop making sense, get a little perspective.

  • Report this Comment On January 16, 2014, at 8:44 PM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @Grandepiacere,

    That's the point of the ARC and PRISM: They can reduce the volume of high-level waste going to geological repositories and send materials with shorter half-lifes.

    I understand many are cautious about nuclear, but this new technology is a step toward a more sustainable, safer industry. Thanks for your comments.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2014, at 12:42 AM, NOTvuffett wrote:

    I saw this article earlier today and I wanted to comment but didn't have time.

    SkepikI is correct that J. Carter pretty much queered this deal. The prohibition against reprocessing was seen as a mechanism against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In fact, it vastly limited the potential energy gain on our nuclear fuel.

    Vast amounts of nuclear fuel have already been reprocessed (In countries not limited by this asinine prohibition). This fuel is burned by current generation reactors.

    and at shredlee, these types of reactors are already being in other countries.

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2014, at 12:46 AM, NOTvuffett wrote:

    d'oh already being built (commercial reactors) in other countries, China and India that I know of.

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2014, at 4:19 AM, dorset96 wrote:

    A few years ago, Toshiba was proposing to partner with the village of Galena in Alaska to place a small nuclear power plant there. This was to be unlike anything that had been deployed elsewhere, suitable for powering a remote village of 5000 or so people. What I heard of the technology sounded promising, but I believe the regulatory hurdles prevented implementation. The idea of having relatively small, stand-alone generating stations like that is intriguing in rural areas and places that are not connected to a national grid (think much of the world). I would be curious to hear whether there is any news on such developments.

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2014, at 3:14 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    ^ The US Navy has had small scale nuclear plants deployed in submarines and surface vessels for more than 5 decades. I know, I ran two different designs, smaller and more compact than what Toshiba proposed. Some of the commentary is only possible from those who have never run, maintained or designed Nuclear Reactors. The number of different designs discussed above in the same context for instance would be like discussing bicycles and Diesel Trucks as equally dangerous. I suppose it depends on who runs into who, but other than both using the wheel the differences are rather breathtaking. Chernobyl, for instance is a graphite moderated reactor, a design which has been abandoned in the west many decades ago for reasons obvious to those who understand design.

    Now that I've bored you all to tears.... maybe some of you should read up on tracts from the late 1800's when people were fearful of engines of various kinds, boilers and the like...

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2014, at 3:49 PM, Artdawg5150 wrote:

    "Despite the ultra-clean safety profile of atomic energy compared with other energy sources"

    Ultra clean? What planet is this guy from? With nuclear power mankind has unlocked Pandora's Box and the consequences will be dealt with by future generations for thousands of years to come. It's the ultimate in human selfishness. Generate power now and let someone else deal with the mess long after I'm gone.

    The concept of power companies paying in $26 billion into a fund for storage is a joke. Fukushima will cost well over a trillion dollars to clean up. A disaster of that type in the USA would likely cost double that. Look how much has been spent cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear facility in WA state and the site is still a disaster that still pollutes large areas of WA and OR with no end in site.

    Provided we all survive the Fukushima disaster, all nuclear power on this planet needs to be halted immediately if we are to have a chance of surviving as a species on this planet. In all likelihood reactor #4 will be in full meltdown (if it isn't already) within months. Depending on the results, we could be looking at 30% of Japan being uninhabitable for all time, the complete destruction of the Pacific Ocean and a total evacuation of the west coast of the US. Is this really worth having all the "clean and safe" energy that nuclear power can provide?

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2014, at 4:52 PM, NOTvuffett wrote:

    what are your odds artwipe?

    i would probably take the bet.

  • Report this Comment On January 17, 2014, at 8:23 PM, borneofan wrote:

    I smiled at the measure of 2 football fields as a lot of waste. Powering 20% of the country for an estimated 110 years. And all the waste would fit on a mediocre athletic facility and its parking lot. There is no other fuel that comes within many orders of magnitude of this achievement. Coal ash from one power plant would bury this century plus nuclear residue in a few years.

    Most power plants pay into a fund to underwrite their eventual demolition, recycle, and cleanup (subject to state laws), not unlike a severance tax assessed on mines for reclamation.

    If fuel reclamation can concentrate and reuse this waste stream, so much the better.

    If you want to avoid a Fukushima, pay attention to the siting decision. Building on a fault line, on a shore subject to tsunamis, and then storing the waste locally in a seismically active zone is a decision that only politics could create.

    Decades of hyperbolic political ranting don't solve problems.

    Rickover's decisions to make the US nuclear fleet a support system for the endless war on others and fund military use of nuclear power are well documented. Reversing those decisions for better and more appropriate technology will take lifetimes. Lets get started.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 9:12 AM, dstb wrote:

    All nuclear waste produced in this country should be stored in the Yucca Mountain facility but the idiot Harry Reid holds the entire country hostage. Get him out of the way and problem solved.

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 11:44 AM, peopleknievel wrote:

    beyond the discussed technological & operations challenges, there is the challenge of accountability.

    How do we demand, assign & guarantee LONG TERM ACCOUNTABILITY for safety & execution?

    WHO: the politicians, govt employees, private employees be held accountable?

  • Report this Comment On January 18, 2014, at 4:18 PM, SH3 wrote:

    The idea that extraordinarily toxic waste could be absolutely secured for millions of years is ludicrous. Thanks to the miracle of plate tectonics, there simply is no such thing as geological stability over the required time periods, and the odds of getting whacked by a good-sized asteroid are fairly good: every million years, the planet's surface has a strike that instantly excavates a trillion tons of material.

    But that's as nothing compared to the _real_ danger: that some well-intentioned true believer gets his back to the wall and decides to go out with a bang, taking the unfaithful with him. If human ingenuity can hide it, then human mean-ness can certainly find it and take the cork out of the bottle.

    An acceptance of nuclear power requires at least one of two perspectives:

    1. "I think somebody else can fix this eventually, even if we have no real solutions now."

    or

    2. "I don't give a damn, because the invoice probably won't be payable until long after I'm gone."

  • Report this Comment On January 19, 2014, at 6:42 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    ^ We've had solutions for more than three decades, thank J. Carter for screwing them up. I'd much rather burn the waste inside reactors, particularly Pu as it has a nasty ancillary use in highly destructive weapons. The ones who don't give a damn are the ones preventing this from implementation, or cheering them on all the while accusing others of "not giving a damn"

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2014, at 9:22 PM, colin112 wrote:

    They found little Johnny playing in a radiation field. They said he'd been eating nuclear waste. His mother warned him not to play with Bozo. Now, he's a mutation!

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2014, at 1:00 PM, rupefool wrote:

    I think the U.S. should find a way to support the GE-Hitachi effort in the U.K. If the technology proves out as planned, the whole world will benefit from a nearly unlimited supply of CO2 free energy. I read a book, "Beyond Fossil Fuels" by Joe Shuster, a retired 3M engineer, which also supports this concept. Joe's book states that this advanced reactor concept was used in Russian subs and in a desalinization plant over 30 years ago in addition to its development by the Argonne Labs. So the concept is proven and just needs to be scaled up.

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