ATLANTA -- Plant Vogtle’s construction of two reactors near Waynesboro, the first of what experts say will be a national surge of new nuclear power plants, is adding urgency to calls for recycling spent nuclear fuel as a way to reduce disposal needs.
Representatives from France and French firms met last week with American industry executives and academics at Georgia Tech where the discussion centered on how recycling in that country reduces nuclear waste by more than 95 percent.
“If our friends at Vogtle are as successful as we believe they will be -- there’s a lot of confidence in the team that is out there in the field -- that will help prime the pump for the next wave (of reactor development),” said David Blee, executive director of the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council.
France’s 58 reactors is the second-largest “fleet” in the world behind the United States, and nuclear power generates the majority of electricity used there while also exporting it to neighboring countries. Yet, it’s stockpile of nuclear waste is a fraction of what’s awaiting permanent, underground disposal here.
“We are convinced that recycling is a big part of the success we have managed with waste management today because it has a role in the minimization of the waste,” said Cyril Pinel, counselor for nuclear affairs at the Embassy of France.
The United States prohibits the reprocessing of spent fuel that would allow most of it to be used again. Then-President Jimmy Carter feared that the plutonium created in part of the process could be exploited for the making of nuclear bombs. But France is able to safeguard the plutonium and adhere to international agreements on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons while recycling, experts said.
“That policy in the ‘70s demonized used fuel and put it into the category as 'waste’ and something that has to be handled as a waste,” said David Jones, senior vice president for reprocessing at the French company AREVA. “We’re trying to get out of that mentality. The rest of the world is already viewing it as a resource.”
Tim Echols, a member of the Georgia Public Service Commission, said Americans began to seriously recycle household garbage in the 1980s and it should be doing the same with spent reactor fuel. At Georgia’s four existing reactors at Plant Vogtle and Plant Hatch near Baxley, nearly 10,000 used fuel assemblies are being stored.
Besides the waste reduction, recycling used fuel assemblies can prolong the available fuel for reactors, according to Tech Professor Weston Stacey. He estimates the global supply of nuclear fuel could be exhausted by the middle of this century otherwise. Reprocessing the spent fuel -- and using it in conjunction with fusion reactors -- could extend the fuel supply 6,000 years or longer at the projected demand in 2050, he said.
France, again, is ahead of the United States in the area of fusion, too. It is already building a fusion reactor to generate electricity which will explore its commercial applicability.