End Use Opportunity Alert!

Steel’s end-use applications are as varied as they are essential—from rebar’s role in reinforcing concrete for infrastructure to the latest, lightest class of flats steels for efficient automotive production. Some steel end uses, in fact, are a matter of life and death.

Take radioactive waste: fuel rods used by nuclear power plants remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years, and if they are not stored properly, remnants can leak into the soil and groundwater surrounding the storage sites and severely threaten the health of anyone living nearby. The potential environmental disaster of unsecured waste can be even more devastating, depending on the storage location. For example, the decommissioned  San Onofre power plant in Southern California sits on a narrow strip of land between an interstate highway and the ocean—if radioactive waste leached into the water, its toxic effects wouldn’t be confined to the immediate area: ocean currents could carry it around the globe.

In order to prevent such catastrophes, nuclear waste is stored in one of two ways: spent fuel pools, which are enclosed, steel-lined concrete pools filled with water; and dry cask storage, which involves sealed, stainless steel canisters housed in reinforced concrete structures. In mid-December it was announced that the nearly 4,000 highly radioactive spent fuel rods from San Onofre will be stored in dry casks made by Holtec International, but local residents are worried about the canisters’ quality and longevity.

According to news reports, the stainless steel in the canisters made by US firms such as Holtec is typically less than an inch thick. In comparison, casks used in Europe are made of cast iron and up to 20 inches thick. Thinner steel might be cheaper, but not only is there a greater potential for damage (especially in earthquake-prone California), it’s nearly impossible to inspect the steel for cracking or corrosion due to the thick concrete sheathing it.

Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) only certifies these casks for 20 years, while the waste could remain in San Onfore indefinitely. The US Department of Energy has long planned to gather nuclear waste from around the country once a permanent, long-term storage facility was established, but the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was quashed in protest with no alternate sites on the horizon.

The NRC’s rigorous licensing process has left little competition in the radioactive waste canister market—according to reports, the European manufacturers of the 20-inch cast iron canisters have not yet applied for licenses in the US, and no US-based firm currently makes a similar product. With several nuclear plants in the US being decommissioned, this could be an opportunity for US-based steel OEMs to save the day.

Then again, there’s always the other, more exciting option: the US could simply load all radioactive waste into a rocket and shoot it toward the sun—which, after all, is nothing more than a giant ball of nuclear explosions anyway.

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