Consider a nuclear technology that could reduce used fuel from nuclear power plants to one-fifth its present volume. Then all high-level radioactive waste from U.S. nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons could be safely secured in a single, deep-geologic repository such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
This established technology, known as nuclear reprocessing, is used in France, Great Britain, Japan and elsewhere to extract valuable products, including plutonium, from used fuel and convert these into so-called mixed-oxide fuel to produce more electricity. Utilization of this mixed oxide fuel eliminates fissile materials including plutonium.
Paradoxically, reprocessing was developed in the United States, but President Jimmy Carter banned reprocessing in April 1977, concerned that the plutonium might contribute to proliferation of nuclear weapons. But experience has shown that used civilian nuclear fuel poses little risk of proliferation. All existing nuclear weapons programs have either preceded or arisen independent of civilian nuclear power, but policymakers in Washington believe reprocessing is too dangerous to be revived.
Counteracting this unfortunate belief is the biggest challenge facing the nuclear industry as it prepares to construct new nuclear plants. Used or spent nuclear fuel is not nuclear waste and still contains about 90 percent of its nuclear energy potential. Closing the fuel cycle with reprocessing and eliminating the plutonium component has been a fundamental principal of nuclear power ever since its creation.
A blue-ribbon commission formed by Energy Secretary Stephen Chu is examining nuclear waste management, including reprocessing. One option is to accelerate research on an advanced reprocessing technology that poses no proliferation risk. Presently, the amount of used fuel stored at U.S. nuclear power plants exceeds 63,000 metric tons. Without reprocessing, this used fuel must be safely disposed of somehow.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act allows only 70,000 metric tons to be stored in a repository. With continued production of electrical power combined with defense programs, this limit will soon be exceeded. If used nuclear fuel is not reprocessed, Congress must either increase this limit or find other disposal sites probably in the eastern United States.
However, the United States may not achieve even one waste repository. President Obama, surrendering to demands from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., ordered the Department of Energy to cease all work on the Yucca Mountain site.
Whether that decision will be reversed is now in court.
By forcing Congress to now focus on this unresolved disposal problem, Obama's decision discloses the fallacy of the decades-old claim that reprocessing is dangerous. The present policy forces the continuing storage of ever-increasing quantities of used fuel in de facto repositories at scores of U.S. nuclear plants. This is not in the best interests of electricity users or taxpayers who have already been taxed $25 billion for Yucca Mountain.
Gary M. Sandquist is a professor emeritus at the University of Utah.