Dear EarthTalk: Why don’t we reprocess and re-use our nuclear waste like France does? Would it be possible for us to start doing so?
— Albert Jukowsky, Silver Spring, MD
Reprocessing nuclear waste to extract more energy from it, while expensive and controversial, is indeed to this day still practiced in France, the UK, Russia, India and Japan—but not in the United States, where it was invented. The process involves breaking down spent nuclear fuel chemically and recovering fissionable material for use in new fuels. Proponents tout the benefit of reducing the amount of nuclear waste, resulting in less highly radioactive material that needs to be stored safely.
Nuclear reprocessing was first developed in the U.S. as part of the World War II-era Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb. After the war, the embryonic nuclear power industry began work to reprocess its waste on a large scale to extend the useful life of uranium, a scarce resource at the time. But commercial reprocessing attempts faltered due to technical, economic and regulatory problems. Anti-nuclear sentiment and the fear of nuclear proliferation in the 1970s led President Jimmy Carter to terminate federal support for further development of commercial reprocessing. The military did continue to reprocess nuclear waste for defense purposes, though, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War made continuous ramping up of our nuclear arsenal unnecessary.
More recently, George W. Bush pushed a plan, the Global Nuclear Energy Project (GNEP), to promote the use of nuclear power and subsidize the development of a new generation of “proliferation-resistant” nuclear reprocessing technologies that could be rolled out to the commercial nuclear energy sector. Federal scientists came up with promising spins on reprocessing nuclear fuel while minimizing the resulting waste. But in June of 2009 the Obama administration cancelled GNEP, citing cost concerns.
Proponents of nuclear power—and of reprocessing in particular—were far from pleased with GNEP’s axing, especially in light of Obama’s earlier decision to close Yucca Mountain as the U.S.’s future nuclear waste repository. “GNEP may have gone away, but the need to recycle spent fuel in this country is more important than ever because of the government’s stupid decision to close Yucca Mountain,” said Danny Black of the Southern Carolina Alliance, a regional economic development group, on the Ecopolitology blog. “Without Yucca Mountain, the pressure is on the industry to do more with recycling.”
But a 2007 report by the nonprofit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) would seem to justify Obama’s decision. IEER found that nuclear reprocessing would actually increase our volume of nuclear waste six fold. IEER also reported that France, which runs the world’s most efficient reprocessing operation, spends about two cents per kilowatt hour more for electricity generated from reprocessed nuclear fuel compared to that generated from fresh fuel. IEEE further reports that the costs to build the breeder plants needed to convert spent nukes into usable fuel would “create intolerable costs and risks.”
For now, U.S. nuclear plants will continue to store waste on site, with spent rods cooled in pools of water for upwards of a year and then moved into thick steel and concrete caskets. While proliferation and terrorism have long been risks associated with hosting nuclear plants on American soil, recent events in Japan underscores that even Mother Nature poses a threat. As such, advocates of reprocessing probably stand little chance of reviving plans in a political climate now so hostile to nuclear development.