Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods is being promoted as a better alternative to simply storing the highly radioactive waste from power plants in repositories.
But how viable is reprocessing?
A Deseret Morning News evaluation found that critics say reprocessing is fraught with economic and safety concerns and that reprocessing carried out in Great Britain caused accidents and radioactive leakage. But the technology also has strong support.
Reprocessing is an issue in Utah because EnergySolutions, the Salt Lake City-based nuclear cleanup and disposal company formerly known as Envirocare, supports it. EnergySolutions says reprocessing would reduce the volume of nuclear waste that would need to be stored.
In an April 17 press release, EnergySolutions CEO Steve Creamer said, "Recycling is the right thing to do for America and will make the PFS (Private Fuel Storage) proposal for Utah obsolete," a point also being made in a current series of EnergySolutions TV ads.
PFS would store up to 40,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in an above-ground facility at Skull Valley, Tooele County, for up to 40 years. Meanwhile, the federal government is planning a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
EnergySolutions noted that in March that the U.S. Department of Energy issued a request for parties to submit expressions of interest in a demonstration program for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. GNEP, supported by President Bush, would have advanced countries supply nuclear fuel to other nations.
Under GNEP, the United States would develop technologies to recycle nuclear fuel "that do not result in separated plutonium a key proliferation risk of existing recycling technologies," says a DOE Web site.EnergySolutions recently purchased the American arm of British Nuclear Group, which carries out reprocessing in the United Kingdom. That gave EnergySolutions the American rights to reprocessing technology. Creamer made it clear that any U.S. reprocessing by the company would not take place in Utah.
An expensive process
"The main problem is cost," said Steve Fetter, professor and dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It is expensive to reprocess nuclear fuel."
Fetter, interviewed by telephone, said new uranium is relatively cheap, and plutonium from reprocessing is far more expensive to use in nuclear fuel. With reprocessing, he said, the product has "negative economic value."
To fabricate the uranium and plutonium from reprocessing and use them in fuel is difficult "because plutonium is hazardous. It requires special equipment, a special facility that's very expensive."
Even if the plutonium were free, he said, the cost of using this reprocessed fuel would be greater than buying fresh uranium for the plants.
Cost also is a concern for Frank von Hippel, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University and co-director of Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security.
He said that in the 1960s and '70s, the United States promoted reprocessing but later reversed that stance. That happened after India used reprocessing to separate plutonium from nuclear fuel then used the plutonium for its first nuclear bomb, he said.
Also, he said, America's leaders decided it was not economical to reprocess and recycle plutonium. "That was confirmed by other countries' later experience," von Hippel said in a telephone interview, "countries that didn't stop as quickly as we did."
According to von Hippel, "We're talking in the ballpark of $100 billion for reprocessing and recycling," as well as preparing material for storage. That is the waste already generated, not counting future waste, he said.
"That's probably the low end of the range," von Hippel added.
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