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Nuclear Recycling Update December 29, 2012

Posted by David Bookstaber in Energy.
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I have always been baffled by the U.S. policy to not recycle nuclear fuel. The used uranium nuclear fuel (UNF) rods that leave our nuclear power plants have only lost 3% of their total nuclear energy. I.e., what we call “nuclear waste” is actually 97% nuclear fuel that could be put back into the same reactors after being scrubbed of tiny amounts of accumulated fission byproducts.

We have spent generations accumulating concentrated UNF in storage pools and dry casks at nuclear facilities, waiting for a “permanent” nuclear waste dump to be established where the highly toxic fuel can be safely stored to naturally decay, undisturbed, for at least one million years!

The whole situation is farcical: U.S. nuclear energy was built on uranium (instead of more practical thorium) precisely because one of the products of uranium fission, plutonium, is most desirable for nuclear weapons. As planned, the U.S. accumulated a massive stockpile of plutonium for its strategic nuclear arsenal. Starting in 1976 the U.S. decided not only that it had enough plutonium, but also that refined plutonium was such a strategic risk that it would not condone further operations in which it could conceivably be produced: In particular, recycling of UNF. A few decades later it signed a START treaty that requires it to dispose of its stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium. The agreed method of disposal is to dilute and burn the stockpiles in nuclear reactors. This will be done over the next few decades at the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) using a process that is virtually identical to nuclear recycling, except that instead of a hypothetical risk of enriched plutonium being siphoned off during one of the steps, it is explicitly starting with enriched plutonium as an input.

Following its original convoluted policy, America’s growing stockpile of UNF will still not be recycled. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world does recycle UNF, with nearly half of nuclear recycling being handled by the French company AREVA’s plant in La Hague.

Based on AREVA’s extended experience, a 2008 Boston Consulting Group study determined that lifetime costs for dealing with UNF by recycling were at least 10% less than permanent storage. The economic advantages of recycling have certainly increased since then as (1) projected costs of raw uranium have increased and (2) America’s hopes of establishing a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain grow increasingly expensive and uncertain.