Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Reprocessing Nuclear Fuel Makes Sense, But Is It Sensible?

• May 20, 2009 • 4:15 PM

Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel appeals to the modern urge to recycle, and some past concerns may be surmountable, but it remains an expensive and fraught process.

Concern over global warming resulting from burning fossil fuels brings renewed interest in nuclear power. Some say that recycling uranium and other elements from nuclear fuel burned in reactors is a logical companion to nuclear electricity generation. The United States stopped reprocessing of fuel — recycling — in the late 1970s. Is it time to reconsider fuel reprocessing as well as nuclear power?

Recently, as I walked among the four massive structures that comprise the guts of Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant, I wondered about the validity of William Tucker’s published claim that “there is no such thing as nuclear waste.” After all, the Department of Energy is building the $12 billion-plus complex in southeast Washington’s Columbia Basin just to deal with the leftovers from reprocessing nuclear fuel. In this case, reactors burned the fuel to produce plutonium.

Advocates say nuclear power is a necessary alternative to carbon-fueled generation to meet base-load needs. Solar and wind generation, in this view, are not reliable 24/7 power providers.

At present, about 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from nuclear plants, and the federal government has received or expects license applications for 30 new reactors. The present policy of the United States is that spent fuel from these reactors will be disposed of in a deep geologic formation, reminiscent of the low-level waste from weapons programs (not spent fuel) that is stored at the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Since 1987, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act has assumed that civilian nuclear waste would be at Yucca Mountain, Nev. However, both Congress and the Obama administration have suspended work developing a waste repository there.

Tucker and other recycling advocates argue not only that recycling makes sense here as in other environmental fields, but also that it will greatly reduce the volume of highly radioactive waste to be disposed. Concern about waste disposal long has been a major stumbling block to a reinvigorated nuclear power industry.

Opponents retort that the weapons proliferation concerns and costs that stymied reprocessing 30 years ago remain solid reasons to reject recycling nuclear reactor fuel.

The United States abandoned reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in the late 1970s. France, Britain, Russia and Japan, on the other hand, continued to develop and use reprocessing facilities.

The two primary reasons the United States did not pursue reprocessing were:

• Concern over creation and separation of fissile materials (especially plutonium 239) that can fuel atomic weapons
• Cost

Congress adopted the policy of direct disposal for spent nuclear fuel after public opinion had turned against nuclear power following the accident at Three Mile Island, and the abandonment both of domestic reprocessing plants and a number of nuclear power reactor projects. The commercial reprocessing facility at West Valley, N.Y, had experienced an expensive failure. Developers abandoned two others, one in Morris, Ill., and the other in Aiken, S.C. Meanwhile, the media focused public attention on the environmental problems that resulted from reprocessing for defense purposes at Hanford, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Idaho National Laboratory.

Fissile Materials
People committed to nuclear disarmament and who fear the spread of nuclear weapons among other nations and terrorist groups oppose reprocessing because it creates more plutonium 239 — the highly fissile isotope that fueled the Trinity test and the Nagasaki bomb.

Between 1944 and the end of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each created about 100 metric tons of the material. (Each metric ton contains enough plutonium 239 to create about 167 Trinity or Nagasaki nuclear explosions.)

The Nuclear Control Institute, a highly regarded nuclear nonproliferation group, asserts that commercial power reactors have already produced six times as much plutonium as weapons programs.

This plutonium could be extracted and available for weapons if commercial fuel were reprocessed. (Plutonium is created by a nuclear chain reaction in solid uranium fuel. When reprocessed, the fuel is dissolved chemically to separate out reusable uranium and plutonium.)

From the point of view of those concerned about nuclear weapons, plutonium locked up in spent fuel, whether recycled or newly created, is more acceptable than separated plutonium that could find its way into weapons. People are much less likely to steal or deal in highly radioactive solid spent fuel than in less directly harmful separated plutonium. The complexity and cost of the industrial facilities to reprocess and extract the plutonium are thought to be further deterrents to weapons proliferation. The United States and Russia have adopted a policy of taking surplus plutonium from weapons stockpiles to enrich fuel for commercial power reactors.

Cost
Based on weapons proliferation concerns, U.S. Presidents Ford and Carter adopted policies to curtail reprocessing. President Reagan did not share that point of view, and made it clear he had no problem with privately financed reprocessing — but no one started developing reprocessing facilities after his election in 1980.

It is likely that some form of government assistance is necessary to make reprocessing viable. This was part of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership proposed by the George W. Bush administration in 2006. (A description of GNEP and the reprocessing principle is at nuclear.inl.gov/gnep/ The Government Accountability Office assessed government participation in this report here.)

The costs of cleanup of existing reprocessing facilities are notable, too. Perhaps as much as a third of the estimated $157 billion cost of cleanup of the Hanford, Savannah River and Idaho National Laboratory defense nuclear sites deals with the aftermath of chemical reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Commercial operators left their West Valley facility rather than correct its problems; the U.S. Department of Energy and the state of New York have borne the approximately $2 billion cost of cleanup and closure.

By most accounts, new nuclear plants remain a relatively expensive option compared to carbon-fueled generating facilities — and reprocessing may well make the nuclear option even more expensive. A report commissioned by the French government in 2000 estimated that reprocessing costs more than obtaining fresh fuel and directly disposing of spent fuel.

Balancing Costs and Impacts
The United States needs to balance a broad range of environmental concerns. Nuclear power and reprocessing are attractive in that they do not produce significant carbon emissions. However, fuel manufacturing and reprocessing do produce radioactive and chemical contaminants and wastes.

The French reprocessing plant at La Hague — hailed as a model by Tucker and others — has released substantial amounts of gaseous and liquid radioactivity since its opening in 1966. According to one calculation, its gaseous and liquid emissions of such isotopes as radioactive iodine, carbon 14, tritium, ruthenium and plutonium would account for a worldwide radiation dose about one-tenth that created by the Chernobyl accident. Even under much more stringent regulations imposed in 2007, the plant’s permitted emissions will be two to four orders of magnitude greater than those allowed for a nearby nuclear power reactor.

If, as Thomas L. Friedman suggests in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, the United States is on its way to being a BNANA (Build Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) republic, concern over reprocessing’s relatively larger emissions may well be more decisive than cost in forestalling its reintroduction. At the same time, one must recognize that uranium mining and milling, and uranium enrichment for commercial power reactors have had significant public health, environmental and cost consequences. These must be considered if the U.S. increases its reliance on nuclear power without reprocessing.

In a recent report on nuclear power, directors of the country’s national laboratories, including current Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, argue that any worldwide increase in reliance on nuclear power is not sustainable without reprocessing. The directors call for a broad research and development program addressing cost, waste and nonproliferation issues. They also regard the hiatus in American reprocessing as a benefit in that the country is not saddled with “dated recycling infrastructure.”

As I stood among cranes pouring concrete over densely woven, heavy rebar at Hanford’s waste treatment complex — with the stacks of two of the site’s now-shuttered reprocessing plants in view — two conflicting impressions struck me:

•  The immense cost in time, labor and resources required to deal with reprocessing’s aftermath
•  The capacity to create robust, thoughtful and, by earlier standards, much safer nuclear facilities

* Max S. Power’s book, America’s Nuclear Wastelands: Politics, Accountability, and Cleanup, has been chosen one of the “Best of the Best from the University Presses” for 2009 by the American Library Association. It was published last year by the Washington State University Press.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Max S. Power
Max S. Power, author of America's Nuclear Wasteland, is a government consultant with a long career in Pacific Northwest nuclear waste issues. He is a former Rhodes Scholar, Yale University Fellow, and Danforth Fellow. Power currently serves on the Oregon Hanford Cleanup Board and on the Hanford Concerns Council.

More From Max S. Power

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.