Rethink disposal of nuclear waste

Posted April 25, 2010, at 7:25 p.m.

What if, after all the heated debate over nuclear waste disposal, we learned about a technology that could significantly reduce the amount of waste generated at nuclear power plants?

And what if, after all the contention between supporters and opponents of nuclear power, it turned out that the waste contains valuable nuclear materials that could be recycled using a process that was developed in the United States more than a half-century ago but later banned by President Jimmy Carter in the mid-1970s, on grounds that its use could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons?

Given that the French and British never followed the U.S. example and continued to recycle nuclear waste safely and efficiently, without the loss of any plutonium that could be misused, isn’t that reason enough to consider reviving this technology? You would think something would be done to learn more about nuclear recycling to see if it could be put to use in the United States once again.

Exactly that is happening now that a national commission is considering what should done with nuclear waste in the wake of President Barack Obama’s decision to cut off funding for construction of an underground repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Energy Secretary Steven Chu directed the commission, co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, to give serious consideration to the recycling of nuclear waste.

Although it’s commonly called nuclear waste, the material that nuclear power plants produce as a byproduct of electricity is used fuel. About 65,000 tons of used fuel now is stored in engineered water pools and concrete-and-steel casks at the sites of operating nuclear plants and reactors such as Maine Yankee and Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts that have been decommissioned.

The technology for recycling, also known as reprocessing, was developed more than a half-century ago. Uranium and plutonium are removed from used fuel and chemically processed into a mixed oxide fuel that can be used in nuclear plants to produce more electricity. Most countries with nuclear power programs use reprocessing facilities to close the nuclear fuel cycle.

Reprocessing is no panacea. A relatively small amount of high-level radioactive waste that can’t be reprocessed would need to be stored in an underground repository. But upwards of 97 percent of the used fuel is reprocessed. Consequently, only one repository, instead of two or three repositories, would be needed to hold the waste produced over the past 50 years at nuclear power plants and the defense program. This would help resolve the nuclear waste problem and extend global uranium resources.

Recycling would cast the nuclear waste issue in a completely new light. Maine is one of 12 states that have imposed a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear plants until the nuclear waste problem is resolved. Among the other states with bans on new nuclear plants are California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Wisconsin. If reprocessing were revived, it would give states an impetus to rescind their bans. Experts say that nuclear waste could be stored safely at interim sites for another 300 years or until a repository becomes available.

Opponents of nuclear power contend that constructing a nuclear reprocessing facility would be too costly and that there are much cheaper ways than the increased use of nuclear power to supply electricity. Some Greens want to end the use of nuclear power altogether.

Never mind that nuclear plants emit zero carbon dioxide and are the only clean alternative to coal for base-load electricity. Never mind that wind and solar energy are intermittent. Neither produces electricity more than 30 percent of the time. And when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, output drops to zero. Both require backup power from turbines using costly natural gas. By contrast, nuclear plants produce electricity 90 percent of the time.

How would we pay for a reprocessing facility? Since 1982, users of nuclear-generated electricity have paid a small fee into a Nuclear Waste Fund to finance construction of the Yucca Mountain repository. More than $30 billion, with interest, was paid into the fund, of which less than $10 billion was spent on the Yucca Mountain project. Some of the balance could be used to build a reprocessing facility.

That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem to some skeptics. A government facility for reprocessing surplus plutonium from the U.S. weapons stockpile is nearing completion at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The plutonium will be converted into mixed oxide fuel and sold for use at nuclear power plants to generate electricity.

Unless something is done to address the nuclear waste problem, nuclear power will be hobbled for years to come. And that’s something we can ill afford, not with the looming danger of global warming. Reprocessing used fuel is a sensible idea. France and Great Britain are using it to good effect. We should, too.

It would be great to see bipartisan support for reprocessing from President Obama and Republicans in Congress who disagree on almost everything else.

Donald A. Grant is chairman and professor emeritus of the mechanical engineering department at the University of Maine.

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