Sunday, March 25, 2007
Many reasons to support nuclear waste recycling
By Donald J. Dudziak
Santa Fe New Mexican, Opinions, Sunday 25 March 2007
If the Bush administration and Congress want to focus energy policies more sensibly, New Mexico is the place to begin.
Thirty years ago, President Jimmy Carter put a halt to the recycling of spent fuel from nuclear power plants, on grounds that plutonium removed during the process might get into the hands of irresponsible governments or terrorists and lead to production of a nuclear weapon. Although President Ronald Reagan lifted the ban on recycling, and other countries like France and Great Britain never stopped using the process, it was not resurrected in this country because recycling was considered too costly.
Now that could change, given the growing importance of nuclear power in the battle against global climate change. In the United States, 17 utilities are preparing to build as many as 33 nuclear power plants. And here in New Mexico, a new uranium enrichment facility is under construction, and one or more nuclear power plants might be built.
Worldwide, the number of nuclear plants is expected to double, with at least 1,000 operating by midcentury, but the likelihood exists there might not be enough uranium.
If the spent reactor fuel now stored at nuclear power plants in the U.S. — some 50,000 tons — were recycled instead of disposed of as nuclear “waste,” it could be converted into new reactor fuel and used again to provide clean electricity. This would help conserve the world’s uranium resources.
Another benefit from recycling is that it significantly reduces the volume, heat and toxicity of nuclear “waste,” in effect more than doubling the capacity of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. It means that Congress would not have to decide on a second or a third site for additional repositories after the first one is built.
The Department of Energy plans to spend $250 million to demonstrate and deploy technologies for recycling, along with advanced “fast” reactors that can burn the recycled spent fuel. DOE’s goal is to stimulate the use of nuclear power around the world, by assuring an ample supply of nuclear fuel, while limiting the risk of weapons proliferation.
Known as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, the DOE plan is to build and operate three facilities in the United States: One for recycling spent fuel and fabricating a mixed-oxide fuel for use in nuclear power plants to produce more electricity. Another facility would be an advanced fast reactor, which would destroy long-lived radioactive elements, while producing power. And a research facility would be used to develop new recycling processes and other advanced nuclear technologies.
So far, 11 sites around the country — including Hobbs and Roswell in New Mexico — have received DOE grants to conduct studies in order to determine whether they’d be suitable as locations for either the nuclear recycling center or the advanced reactor. Over the long term, the facilities are expected to require a capital investment of at least $16 billion and bring in 8,000 jobs.
The cost of developing new recycling technology would be stretched out over many years, so it will require an assurance of long-term, predictable funding for research, development and demonstration, involving universities and national laboratories.
No question about it, the idea of recycling is ambitious. It will entail perfecting a new technology for recycling, one that reduces the risk of weapons proliferation and is affordable. Also, a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors will need to be built. As we’ve learned well over the past 30 years, the absence of recycling and the unnecessary delays in opening the Yucca Mountain repository have placed nuclear power plants in the position of storing more spent fuel than expected, for longer than originally intended.
We need to move forward with GNEP now. Otherwise, we could seriously limit the ability of nuclear power to provide the essentially emission-free energy that the world urgently needs.
Donald J. Dudziak, Ph.D., P.E., is a fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a department head and professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at North Carolina State University.