Going Nuclear: What To Do With the Waste?

From the Wall Street Journal blog.

Posted by Keith Johnson

Nuclear power's renaissance in the U.S. faces plenty of hurdles. But one big stumbling block stands out-what to do with the spent fuel?

Reprocessing spent fuel has been on the front burner since the Bush administration's launch of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which advocates recycling used fuel rods. There's a steady groundswell of support from industry players like Areva of France to New Mexico Senator Pete Dominici, who touts the idea every chance he can.

Reprocessing the fuel rods used to run nuclear reactors is meant to cut down on the amount of high-level waste that eventually needs to be stuck in a cave like Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Popular at a time when people worried we were running out of uranium, reprocessing is also meant to conserve fuel. After several false-and expensive-starts, it fell out of favor in the U.S. even before the nuclear industry's hiatus in the 1980s. It went gangbusters abroad, especially in France and Japan, but is also running out of steam there.

To revive reprocessing in the U.S. would be a terrible mistake, argues former Clinton science adviser and Princeton nuclear physicist Frank N. von Hippel in Scientific American's big takeout on the ins and outs of fuel reprocessing. The three sins:

One is that extraction and processing cost much more than the new fuel is worth. Another is that recycling the plutonium reduces the waste problem only minimally. Most important, the separated plutonium can readily serve to make nuclear bombs if it gets into the wrong hands; as a result, much effort has to be expended to keep it secure until it is once more a part of spent fuel.

The Keystone Center, a non-profit science and environment group, last year highlighted the iffy economics as the worst part of reprocessing. Even though uranium prices have increased ten-fold this decade, it's still cheaper just to refill part of the reactor pool every so often with fresh rods.

The Bush adminstration's plan was to keep reprocessing again and again, which could make a dent in the amount of high-level waste that needs to be buried. But only at higher cost-and with even greater levels of low- and intermediate-level waste, which also has to be buried in concrete somewhere.

But it's the proliferation argument that has folks worried. (Well, not everybody.) Reprocessing promises to create hundreds of tons of weapons-grade plutonium, many critics say. Japan tweaked its own reprocessing to make the plutonium less pure, and less useful for weapons, but the technology outlined in the U.S. plan wouldn't apparently do that. This week, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation cheered Congressional Democrats who are fighting to strip reprocessing funding and urged Sen. Domenici to give up the ghost.

For now, even though Yucca Mountain is at least a decade away from opening, U.S. policy is to revive reprocessing as crucial part of the nuclear revival. EC readers, what's your verdict?