- The United States is laying plans that could lead to
recycling commercial nuclear waste into fuel for the first time in almost
30 years. But critics worry that such a boost for nuclear power could undermine
global efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
- The Department of Energy's (DOE's) new budget, signed
by President George W. Bush last month, contains $50 million toward a goal
of beginning construction on an engineering-scale reprocessing plant by
2010. Supporters say that recycling fuel could not only save time and money
but also ease a mounting nuclear waste problem. Opponents dispute each
of those points, adding that the technology needed is not yet at hand and
that the United States, by recycling waste, would be sending the wrong
signal to the rest of the world.
- Researchers have explored reprocessing spent nuclear
fuel rods since the dawn of the nuclear age. U.S. government officials
pushed recycling commercial fuel in the 1960s when uranium was thought
to be scarce and plutonium was considered a good fuel.
- Separating out the plutonium and uranium from other fissionable
material also would reduce quantities of certain types of highly radioactive
nuclear waste, thus in theory increasing the storage potential at the yet-to-be-built
Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. "The pursuit of [safe] recycling
technologies . must be considered not just a worthwhile but a necessary
goal," DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman said earlier this month.
- But plutonium is also used in nuclear weapons, and critics
say that producing more of it increases the likelihood that some will get
into the wrong hands.
- The United Kingdom, France, and Japan use an aqueous
method to recover uranium and plutonium from spent fuel rods. That technique,
called PUREX, involves dissolving the rods with acid and chemically separating
the two fuels.
- Japanese scientists have found that the approach is not
economically viable, and the French experience has been mixed. Supporters
also say reprocessing could forestall construction of an expensive second
storage facility if, as projected, Yucca runs out of space within a decade--assuming
the facility overcomes legal barriers to open.
- With the growing interest in nuclear energy as an alternative
to greenhouse gas-emitting technologies, scientists have developed advanced
reprocessing techniques aimed at solving the waste issue without adding
to the proliferation threat.
- One experimental approach, touted by scientists at DOE's
Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, is to use aqueous methods similar
to PUREX with extra chemical steps to keep plutonium mixed with uranium
and to retain nasty fission products that make the product too radioactive
- Another method, called pyroprocessing, employs electrochemistry
to create a metal fuel that could include a fission product called cerium-144,
which remains highly radioactive for 2 years. The fuel, which would be
hot and therefore tough for thieves to handle, could theoretically be fed
immediately into an adjacent reactor to provide power, say advocates. Argonne
deputy associate lab director Phillip Finck says that radiation monitors
and tight security could make both recycling methods proliferation-resistant.
- But Princeton University physicist Frank von Hippel and
others dispute the advantages. Most U.S. spent fuel is about 20 years old,
he points out, making the nonproliferation advantages of cerium in pyroprocessing
"irrelevant for the spent fuel we have."
- Monitoring techniques to keep track of plutonium in a
complex facility are woefully inadequate, says Edwin Lyman of the Union
of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Moreover, said Representative
Edward Markey (D-MA) during a House debate in May, the current ban on reprocessing
nuclear fuel "gives us the high moral ground as we look at the North
Koreans and Iranians to tell them not to do it." In 1977, President
Jimmy Carter halted federal support for commercial recycling after India
used civilian reprocessing to obtain nuclear weapons.
- Experts say the technology is likely to remain prohibitively
expensive. A 1996 National Research Council study found that recycling
existing U.S. spent fuel rods could cost up to $100 billion; building the
fast reactors to burn recycled fuel obtained by pyroprocessing or by advanced
methods would be a major element of that cost. A 2003 study by researchers
at Harvard University and the University of Maryland found that reprocessing
uranium using current industrial methods would be economical only if the
cost of obtaining uranium were to increase by a factor of 10. Geologists
have only recently begun to look for new sources, but former Argonne reprocessing
specialist Milt Levenson says the price could soon rise if demand increases--although
he says there are too many factors at play to make an economic argument
for or against reprocessing.
- Reprocessing could cut storage costs by keeping very-long-lasting
isotopes in the fuel cycle, say supporters, allowing DOE to store the fission
products with less long-term heat more compactly within Yucca. The Yucca
repository is designed to store spent fuel rods in dry casks for 10,000
years. Opponents of reprocessing would prefer that U.S. utilities continue
to follow that course--and that Congress expand Yucca only after exploring
aboveground storage for fuel rods.
- Research on advanced recycling should continue, they
add, but not at the risk of undermining diplomatic efforts to stop reprocessing
abroad. If recycling methods show promise down the road, they say, spent
fuel could be retrieved from Yucca and tapped for power. "We don't
need to do it now. We don't have the technical knowledge to do it now,"
says physics Nobelist Burt Richter, a member of an American Physical Society
technical committee that in May called for a cautious approach.
- But growing energy demands require more nuclear plants,
say supporters, and the waste problem needs reprocessing. "The federal
government does a lot that isn't economical," says Representative
Judy Biggert (R-IL), whose district includes Argonne, "often because
doing so is in the best interests of the nation for other reasons."
By giving DOE its marching orders, Congress has revived the debate over
exactly what those interests are.