Recycling nuclear waste makes sense for energy future

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April 3, 2014 | 2:40 am

By Carolyn D. Heising

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Nuclear-waste management would be in much better shape now if the recycling of used fuel from power reactors had never been banned 35 years ago.

So why not lift the ban? Recycling this energetically valuable material would significantly reduce the volume and toxicity of nuclear waste and extend uranium supplies for hundreds of years.

Yet one answer still heard is the same one that was given in 1976 when President Jimmy Carter put an end to the recycling of valuable materials left over from the production of electricity at U.S. nuclear power plants. One of those materials, plutonium, if it fell into the wrong hands, could be used to build a nuclear weapon. But France, Great Britain and Japan have continued to recycle used fuel, and no plutonium has ever been diverted from their reprocessing facilities.

Thanks to such recycling, France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, compared to 19 percent in the United States, and it has the lowest per-capita carbon emissions among industrial nations.

Rather than continue to store used fuel at dozens of nuclear plant sites around the United States, the U.S. government should lift its ban on nuclear recycling and demonstrate the use of advanced recycling technology. In this process, plutonium is extracted from used-fuel rods and chemically converted into a so-called mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in power reactors.

The best place for such a facility would be at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where a used-fuel recycling facility had been planned before the ban was imposed and where a plant for reprocessing weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel for power reactors is under construction.

Almost all of the used fuel in a power reactor can be recycled, but not all. Developing a deep-geologic repository for any long-lived waste that cannot be reused would still be necessary, but there would be much less waste to dispose of. Instead of multiple repositories, we would need only to complete the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada, a project that President Obama canceled last year for political reasons.

A new used-fuel recycling facility — designed for safety and proliferation resistance — would allow the United States to make full productive use of nuclear energy. Such a facility would cut disposal costs and eliminate the need to mine uranium, which itself is environmentally damaging. It would mean not having to store used fuel in water pools and above-ground dry casks indefinitely. Such casks are already in use in Iowa, where 420 metric tons of used fuel from Palo’s Duane Arnold nuclear plant is stored.

Though used fuel is being stored safely, nuclear plants were designed to produce electricity, not to store waste indefinitely. Failure to remove the ban on recycling — and complete the Yucca Mountain project — will require even more used fuel to be stored above ground and might force some plants to close prematurely. The result would be electricity shortages or increased use of fossil fuels for power production, causing even greater quantities of toxic pollutants and carbon emissions to be spewed into the air.

Why not recycle used fuel so that we can expand the use of clean nuclear energy? If other countries can do it safely and securely, we can, too.

Carolyn D. Heising is professor of Industrial, Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Iowa State University in Ames. comments: cheising@iastate.edu]

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