How much (or whether at all) a new generation of nuclear reactors should be considered in meeting America’s future electricity needs is a hotly debated topic these days, to say the least. But, in some respects, that’s putting the cart ahead of the horse.
The question of what to do with the nuclear fuel we’ve produced thus far – “high burn-up spent fuel” in industry parlance – remains unresolved. Public perception, driven by some underlying myths, is that we have no idea what to do with the nuclear waste we’ve produced.
The truth is, the answer is staring us right in the face.
The notion of burying used nuclear fuel underground appears to have been finally shelved, given the current Administration’s stance on deep geological disposal, and the State of Nevada’s ardent opposition to storing waste at Yucca Mountain.
That may not be such a bad thing, because burying spent nuclear fuel in an underground repository would mean losing a valuable energy resource, something we can ill afford.
Utilities operating nuclear power plants continue to store spent nuclear fuel rods on site in pools of water, before eventually moving them to dry casks, as they have more than 30 years. While there is some debate over whether the casks should be located in one central storage site, the practice is widely accepted as safe and secure.
That’s the first myth – that we don’t know how to safely store our spent nuclear fuel in a secure manner.
The second myth relates to the threats posed by recycling (or “reprocessing”) of nuclear fuel. The U.S. recycling program has been in abeyance for more than 30 years, ever since President Carter ended the program in the late-1970s.
Since that time, little funding has been available for radio-chemistry in our universities, and the U.S. has fallen far behind other nations that have continued their recycling programs. Indeed, unless action is taken now, in 10 years America will be the only major country with nuclear power that lacks recycling capability.
Critics cite the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation as the biggest reason to oppose recycling. But in reality, such concerns are largely unfounded.
While it is true that the plutonium in recycled nuclear fuel is fissionable, no country in the world has ever made a nuclear weapon out of low-grade plutonium that resides in recycled high burn-up nuclear fuel. It just doesn’t work for a strategic and tactical nuclear weapon.
(Related: Can Nuclear Waste Spark an Energy Solution? )
Spent fuel contains three categories of materials: Transuranics produced through the reactor burn cycle (Americium, Neptunium, Plutonium, Curium); fission products produced through the reactor burn cycle (Strontium and Iodine); uranium 238, and about 1 percent of uranium 235 that was not consumed through the reactor burn cycle.
The first component, mainly the plutonium, is fissionable, and could be formulated into fuel for current light water reactors, and eventually for fast spectrum reactors. The second component has a high heat load and toxicity, but, concomitantly, a relatively short half life (30 – 40 years).
The third component has a significantly higher fissionable uranium 235 than found naturally (0.7%), and could add to potential fuel for light water reactors.
Leaving aside the Americium from the transuranic materials would enable conversion to reactor fuel that could be done in a glove box; the fission products could be buried in concrete, left for a hundred years, and then disposed of an underground salt repository (e.g., the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico) with no radiation or significant heat load issues because of their relatively short half life.
(For a report on a fusion technology for reprocessing nuclear fuel, see “Physicists Find a Way to Generate Energy from Nuclear Waste”)
Indeed, separation of spent fuel into these components would appear to be a particularly good fit for the generation of electricity in a carbon-constrained environment.
The time has come for the U.S. to get over its historic resistance to recycling nuclear fuel. It is the elephant in the nation’s living room that no one wants to acknowledge.
Unless and until we change course and re-engage on the issue of recycling, the U.S. we will remain all but irrelevant on the world stage. After all, how can we tell other countries what they should or should not do with their nuclear waste when we steadfastly refuse to take action ourselves?
(Related: New Nuclear Energy Grapples With Costs)
Dale E. Klein is Associate Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin and former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.