In addition to experts invited to testify before the BRC, members of the public also have a chance to share their opinions on nuclear energy’s path forward in the U.S. David Merrill, a scientist with French energy conglomerate AREVA, had a straightforward recommendation: “The answer to the question, ‘What should we do with commercial nuclear reactor waste?’ is obvious to me. All those spent nuclear fuel assemblies … should be reprocessed.”
Fuel for nuclear reactors comes in the form of uranium rods. After about four years of providing energy, waste products accumulate and the rods are no longer efficient power producers. At that point, they can either be dumped into waste storage or they can be reprocessed. Reprocessing is a chemical operation that recovers uranium and plutonium from spent fuel rods in order to make new fuel.
In the early years of the U.S.’s commercial nuclear industry, plans for reprocessing were all the rage. They would allow power plants to recycle their fuel and greatly reduce the amount of waste. The catch, however, is that the resulting plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons. In the ’70s, fears of weapons proliferation led Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter to declare the end of reprocessing technologies for the U.S.’s commercial nuclear sector.
But times are changing, and the BRC is once again considering reprocessing as an option. Countries like France and Russia currently reprocess nuclear fuel and the French company AREVA has operated a recycling complex for more than 40 years. Executive Alan Hanson shared the company’s experience with the BRC. “In terms of mass, 96 percent of the content of used fuel is reusable,” Hanson said. And with only four percent of the used fuel left to dispose of, reprocessing “reduces the burden on the geologic repository.” Hanson asserted that reprocessing can be done safely and securely, while contributing to energy security.
As he sees it, the U.S.’s attempt to set an example for the rest of the world to avoid weapons proliferation hasn’t worked. “That policy did not prevent Britain, France, Japan or Russia from domestic recycling,” Hanson said, “and I’m here to tell you it will not stop China and India, who are moving ahead aggressively to do commercial recycling.”
In fact, the DOE is researching technologies that would avoid separating out weapons-grade plutonium. But after all the debate over security concerns, the stumbling block may turn out to be economic. The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2007 that current reprocessing technologies are more expensive than direct disposal of waste in a deep geologic repository. And an earlier study from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government also found that “the margin between the cost of reprocessing and recycling and that of direct disposal is wide, and is likely to persist for many decades to come.”