Remember that time we sent all of America's nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain?
Yeah, me neither.
That's because in 2011 the federal government stopped funding work to develop the site, which was poised to become the long-term solution for long-lived, high-priority nuclear waste generated within our borders. The good news is that, for now, nuclear waste is safely stored on-site at existing power plants. Also, its eventual disposal has already been funded by power plant owners such as Exelon (NASDAQ:EXC), so taxpayers aren't on the hook here.
The bad news is that abandoning the Yucca Mountain repository means there is no long-term storage plan in place, which could become a national problem if not addressed. At last count Uncle Sam tallied 69,720 metric tons of used nuclear fuels -- and the total volume will swell to over 120,000 metric tons over the life of existing nuclear reactors. What do we do?
Considering that the federal government owns all nuclear waste our only shot at a long-term solution remains squarely in the hands of American politicians. But if we can't even agree on storing it far underground in the middle of the sparsely populated Nevada desert, then what are the chances another site can be developed without public outcry? Wouldn't it be great if all of our used nuclear fuel could just be relocated somewhere else far, far away?
Well, as it turns out, that might be a viable solution.
The Land Down Under
If someone mentioned the term "Land Down Under" in the same conversation as nuclear waste, then you would probably be inclined to think that person was talking about underground storage at Yucca Mountain. I'm not. I'm talking about the Land Down Under: Australia. You know, the one with kangaroos, koala bears, the Outback, and the Sydney Opera House.
That's right, Australia -- a country without a single commercial nuclear reactor -- is considering a proposal to accept used nuclear fuel from around the globe for an attractive service fee. Why would a nation free from the burden of dealing with nuclear waste disposal want to import the problem?
Senator Sean Edwards of South Australia thinks it would be a great way to generate funds for his state, which itself isn't a novel idea. After all, 31 American states have at least one nuclear reactor, but 38 states house spent nuclear fuel. The novelty in Edwards' proposal is the part that calls for converting Australia into a leader in next-generation nuclear power. That's because the proposal involves not just storing the world's used nuclear fuel, but also recycling it with next-generation "fast reactors" capable of consuming nuclear waste to generate clean electricity.
While it's just a proposal at the moment, it could create a big opportunity for General Electric (NYSE:GE). The company is developing the PRISM, a Generation IV nuclear reactor that can run on everything from uranium to plutonium to used nuclear fuel, for exactly that purpose. And since the PRISM is a small modular reactor, or SMR, it will be far cheaper to build than a traditional (large and centralized) nuclear reactor -- a major selling point considering favorable economics don't usually accompany new nuclear projects.
To date, General Electric has focused on attempting to convince the government of the United Kingdom -- on the exact opposite part of the globe -- to be the first to deploy a PRISM when it becomes commercially available sometime next decade to help the country dispose of its world-leading plutonium stockpiles. Now that Australia has potentially entered the next-generation nuclear conversation, the company could be insulated from a possible rejection in the U.K.
Will the U.S. ship its nuclear waste to Australia?
Sending our long-term nuclear problem around the globe to Australia might not be a bad idea, but it has some logistical hurdles to consider. How do you get all the U.S. nuclear waste, most of which resides on the East Coast, to the West Coast -- and then to the Land Down Under? How do you ensure the public that transportation risks are sufficiently mitigated? (This wouldn't be unprecedented, considering that used fuel from Exelon's Three Mile Island nuclear reactors is now housed over 2,400 miles away in Idaho.)
And the most important question of all: Why should we let Australia establish itself as a leader in next-generation nuclear technology when we could easily build a fleet of PRISMs (or other "fast" reactors) within our own borders, to monetize our own nuclear wastes, to cleanly power our own electricity grid?
That's the question General Electric investors might be asking right now, although they may benefit from the future of nuclear power one way or the other. If the United States continues to drag its feet, then it might not be so lucky.