Fueling America's nuclear renaissance by reprocessing nuclear fuel

Bernard Weinstein, associate director of SMU's Maguire Energy Institute, writes about a nuclear renaissance by reprocessing nuclear fuel.

Special to The Star-Telegram

In recent months, President Barack Obama has done an about-face and voiced support for a revival of America's nuclear power industry. To that end, he has proposed a sizable increase in federal loan guarantees to stimulate the construction of commercial reactors.

At the same time, the president continues to insist that Yucca Mountain in Nevada -- the intended repository for spent nuclear fuel -- be abandoned as a disposal site even before it opens. Should this happen, some 60,000 metric tons of spent fuel will remain in temporary on-site storage at 65 plants, and the power industry's interest in building nuclear plants could quickly evaporate.

Since 1982, utilities have paid almost $17 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund, an account administered by the Energy Department that continues to grow by $800 million annually, to cover the costs of permanent disposal. Texas utilities alone -- which is to say Texas ratepayers -- have contributed almost $650 million to the fund. Even after spending $10 billion at Yucca Mountain, with accumulated interest the fund balance is currently around $20 billion.

Not surprisingly, 16 utilities, along with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, have sued the Energy Department to halt further collection of fees, arguing that the country no longer has a disposal plan after ruling out Yucca Mountain.

The Obama administration now says it supports the temporary storage of spent fuel at power plants while technology paves the way for an alternative solution. In fact, that technology already exists -- nuclear fuel reprocessing.

Given the uncertainty over Yucca Mountain and the potential explosion of litigation that will only increase taxpayer exposure, why not rethink the decades-old ban on this technology? The ban was first imposed by President Jimmy Carter in the mid-1970s on the grounds that it could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But that hasn't stopped France, Britain, Russia, China and South Korea from pursuing fuel reprocessing; and no plutonium has ever been diverted from recycling facilities for weapons production in these countries.

With reprocessing, a technology that was developed in the United States, valuable plutonium and uranium in spent fuel are removed and then chemically processed into a mixed-oxide fuel that can be used again in a reactor to generate additional electricity. Up to 95 percent of the spent fuel volume can be reprocessed, leaving only about 5 percent to decay in a few centuries.

Importantly, reducing the volume of spent fuel through reprocessing would simplify the challenge of storage and disposal. What's more, squeezing more energy out of spent fuel would be beneficial to the nation's economy and the environment.

By using reprocessed fuel, we generate more electricity for American homes and businesses while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One reprocessing facility is already being constructed in South Carolina to recycle surplus plutonium from nuclear weapons into a mixed-oxide fuel for use in nuclear power plants. Some of the funds that have accumulated in the Nuclear Waste Fund could be used to build a similar plant for recycling used fuel from commercial nuclear facilities.

In January, the Energy Department appointed a blue ribbon commission to evaluate policy options for a safe, long-term solution to nuclear waste disposal. The 15-member Commission on America's Nuclear Future, co-chaired by former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and including scientists, industry representatives and heads of environmental research organizations, plans to issue its final report by January 2012.

Recycling of spent nuclear fuel should be at the top of the commission's agenda. Reprocessing, along with centralized interim storage, makes a lot more sense than banking used fuel at nuclear plants indefinitely. At the same time, we should be doing everything we reasonably can to advance America's nuclear renaissance, a task made more difficult by the ongoing uncertainty regarding the final disposition of spent fuel.

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