More than three decades ago, the United States stopped reprocessing used nuclear fuel left over from the production of electricity. As a result, valuable nuclear materials in used fuel continue to be stored at nuclear power plants as if they are nothing but waste to be disposed of in a deep-geologic repository. This shortsighted policy needs to be scrapped and replaced with one that recognizes the great value in used-fuel reprocessing, as most other industrialized countries do.
France, for example, has profited from reprocessing its used fuel to sell nuclear-generated electricity worth billions of dollars to other European countries. The amount of used fuel kept in storage at nuclear power plants in the United States now exceeds 72,000 metric tons, which is more than the law allows to be placed in a single underground repository. So, unless there is a change in policy, we are going to need multiple repositories in this country to hold used fuel that already exists and used fuel that will be produced in the future.
These days the revival of reprocessing in the United States is generally discussed as a distant goal. There is general agreement among nuclear experts in government and industry that it would be nice to resume reprocessing if it could be done economically and without posing a threat to nuclear non-proliferation. Resolving the nuclear waste problem is uppermost, and reprocessing, also known as recycling, should not be discounted.
Two years ago, a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission on the nuclear waste problem considered reprocessing. In its report, the commission cited the need for additional research and development of reprocessing technology to address its cost as well as safety and proliferation concerns. In other words, the commission more or less kicked the can down the road, downplaying the potential role of reprocessing in the use of nuclear power.
Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. The Department of Energy (DOE) faces a huge legal liability over its continuing failure to take possession of used fuel, as it was required by law to do beginning in 1998. DOE itself acknowledged in 2009 that such liabilities would reach $11 billion even if the planned repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada were to become available. Now that the Yucca Mountain project has been abandoned, and consumers of nuclear-generated electricity are still paying a monthly fee for its construction, DOE’s liability has skyrocketed. Moreover, political pressure is mounting in state public utility commissions and Congress to force DOE to drop the fee. It’s not small change. Since 1982, electricity users have paid more than $20 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund.
What to do?
Start with the big question: How did we get into the mess we’re in?
For one thing, President Jimmy Carter never should have banned the use of reprocessing. He did so on grounds that it could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yet other countries with nuclear programs, like France and Great Britain, did not follow the U.S. example, and they have continued to reprocess used fuel safely and efficiently. They adhere to safeguards laid down by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
We are going to need a deep-geologic repository for nuclear waste, whether or not reprocessing resumes. That’s because some of the used fuel cannot be recycled into so-called mixed-oxide fuel, so it must be disposed of as nuclear waste. Also, there is nuclear waste that was left over during reprocessing in the 1960s and 1970s, and waste from the government’s nuclear weapons program.
Current DOE strategy is to move the used fuel from nuclear power plants to interim storage facilities, in the hope that one or more states will volunteer to take dry casks containing the fuel. Interestingly, the city of Carlsbad in southeastern New Mexico has mounted a campaign to take the used fuel and even host the repository. That’s not as surprising as it might seem. Carlsbad has benefited economically from a repository for military nuclear waste that’s located in a thick salt bed about 20 miles outside the city. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), as it’s called, opened in 1999, and has been taking drums of long-lived transuranic waste shipped by rail and truck from government installations around the country.
So here we are. Instead of moving forward on a permanent solution to the waste problem, DOE has opted for an interim approach that defers decisions on a repository and reprocessing to future generations. It’s a disturbing picture, and one where our irresponsible political system is failing us.
Mel Buckner is a nuclear engineer and an adjunct professor in the Nuclear Program at the University of South Carolina.