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The Greenest Power: Reprocessed Nuclear Fuel

July 21st, 2009 at 3:35 pm | 2 Comments |

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France and Japan recycle the uranium used to generate nuclear power.  The United States does not. Why?

One of the byproducts of fuel recycling is plutonium. The Carter administration banned recycling in hopes that other countries would follow the US example – and thus reduce the risk of weapons proliferation. These hopes were disappointed. “We haven’t reprocessed anything in this country since the 1970s… Do you think it worked?” asks Steven Kraft, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Senior Director of Used Fuel Management.

Recycling dramatically increases the power potential potential of uranium. Reprocessed fuel can can produce sixty times the amount of power it produces if only used once. This, of course, means that much less uranium would need to be mined, and the environmental damage that results from this activity would be drastically reduced.

Reprocessing reduces both the volume and radioactivity of the uranium waste that ultimately needs to be dealt with by almost 90%. “It’s inherently wasteful not to reprocess existing nuclear fuel… it’s not environmentally conscious,” argues Steven Everley, a policy advisor to American Solutions, of which Newt Gingrich is the chairman.

Perhaps the most potent objection to nuclear fuel processing lies in the economics of the matter. “Reprocessing doesn’t make any sense – economically, it’s more expensive” than mining uranium and just discarding the waste, claims Steve Caldwell, Policy Coordinator for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. In addition, managing a larger amount of waste would not be of paramount environmental concern, he contended: “We think that there are extensive safety regulations concerning how waste is stored now… [waste management] is not a constraint to the expansion of nuclear power production.” On the other hand, it is clear that a central repository cannot be held off indefinitely without unacceptably high costs.

Even if the United States were to lift the ban on nuclear fuel reprocessing today, it would take decades for the recycling to begin. The executive prohibition has crippled American research and development on the subject, and critical infrastructure could take ten to twenty years to build. Moreover, if reprocessing uranium is to be a viable alternative to the current one-cycle model, R&D will need to be focused upon making reprocessing cheaper. Yet, considering the benefits, nuclear fuel reprocessing warrants attention, reflection and research.

Nuclear is necessary. Nuclear costs far less than wind or solar. True, new nuclear capacity will cost more than existing coal capacity. But as Steve Kraft points out, “You cannot compare the cost of new nuclear with old coal. You have to compare it with new solar, new wind, new coal… at which point [nuclear] becomes competitive.” If the United States is serious about reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, it will need to expand nuclear generation – and if nuclear is to fulfill its promise, fuel reprocessing is essential.

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