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It has been 35 years, now since the U.S. government declared a ban on used nuclear fuel. Over all these years, the term “reprocessing” has been a dirty word. These days, though, quite a few nuclear scientists and engineers are fully convinced a new commitment to reprocessing is key to solving the nuclear waste problem. Turning the clock back, they add, would as well push the nuclear energy sector into the future, ushering in a new generation of advanced power reactors. With large fall outs as far as technological advance is concerned. Hundreds of nuclear professionals recently sent a joint letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House science adviser John Holdren urging it is time to lift the ban.I
n 1977, President Jimmy Carter ended reprocessing in the United States, citing proliferation risks and hoping other countries such as France and Great Britain would do likewise. They didn’t. They have continued to reprocess used fuel — in the case of France, using recycling as part of its nuclear program to obtain 80 percent of its electricity and to sell surplus power to neighboring countries.
What would the advantages and benefits of reprocessing used nuclear fuel be? Reprocessing is a process that allows extracting large amounts of valuable plutonium and uranium from used nuclear fuel. Its output is so-called mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel that can be used in a nuclear plant to produce more electricity.
In spite of the doubts from skeptics, reprocessing is a game-changing technology that could turn a huge amount of used fuel left over from the production of nuclear-generated electricity into a significant energy resource. The United States currently has 65,200 metric tons of used fuel in storage, of which 610 metric tons are at the Callaway Nuclear Plant near Fulton. Managing waste fuel is a complex and costly task: the cylindrical rods that house it need be periodically removed from a reactor and stored in engineered water pools or above-ground dry casks at nuclear power plant sites.
Reprocessing has great potential value for the United States. Using it along with breeder reactors would recover 90 percent of the original energy that remains in the fuel after one use in a reactor. And it would extend uranium resources for hundreds of years and reduce by at least 50 percent the amount of long-lived nuclear waste that would need to be stored in a deep-geologic repository. Additionally, the heat and toxicity of such waste would be reduced, enabling the United States to store all of the long-lived waste from power reactors and the weapons program in a single repository instead of having to find sites and pay for the construction of multiple repositories.
Users of nuclear-generated electricity already have paid $17.9 billion into the trust fund since it was established more than 30 years ago. The fund continues to grow by $800 million annually to cover the costs of nuclear waste management. Considering the uncertain future of the Yucca Mountain project, now is the time to resurrect used-fuel reprocessing. This would simplify the challenge of nuclear waste storage and disposal.
If reprocessing is revived in the United States, used fuel could become an important energy source. If not, it will remain in storage indefinitely as a lost opportunity.