Recycling used nuclear fuel is a prudent energy move

President Obama's decision to slash funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada may seem Draconian. It offers, rather, an occasion for imagination and innovative planning.

Three facts seem amply obvious: Used fuel from the production of electricity at nuclear plants is not waste; used fuel contains roughly 95 percent of the fuel's original energy; and America would benefit if the used fuel could be recycled and used again in reactors to produce more electricity.

THUS STATED, THE problem invites an easy solution. The Department of Energy should take possession of the used fuel now being stored at the nation's nuclear power plants, gradually shipping the nuclear material to a reprocessing plant for recycling. Fortunately, a ban on nuclear recycling that President Carter imposed in 1977 because of proliferation fears has been lifted.

One of the underused plants at tSavannah River Site could be reconfigured as a recycling plant. Since 1983, electricity companies have paid $24 billion into a government fund for construction of the Yucca Mountain repository, but only $9 billion has been used. The balance could be designated for modernizing such a recycling plant.

Recycling used fuel is a proven technology, with multiple benefits. France, Great Britain and Japan use it to supply fuel for their nuclear plants. Recycling extends uranium supplies, and it significantly reduces the amount of nuclear waste that will need to be buried for permanent disposal in a repository.

Obviously, the need for nuclear fuel is ramping up. Here in Georgia, the Southern Co. plans to construct two additional nuclear plants at the Plant Vogtle site. Nationally, electricity companies are gearing up to build more than 30 nuclear plants, though a total of 55 additional reactors will be needed by 2030 if nuclear power is to maintain its current 19-percent share of the nation's electricity production.

THAT WOULD BRING the total number of U.S. nuclear plants to 160 units, but there's already enough used fuel in storage to supply the entire fleet of reactors for many years -- nearly 60,000 metric tons.

A final benefit of recycling would be the restoration of the closed nuclear fuel cycle. That was the dream of America's nuclear pioneers a half-century ago that was deferred indefinitely and wrongly when the process was banned. An international system to recycle and manage such fuel would prevent covert proliferation.

Besides, nuclear power has an essential role to play in helping to achieve America's energy independence and significantly reducing greenhouse-gas emissions -- and recycling would help in both regards.

It is high time that the Department of Energy took possession of the used fuel, as Congress ordered it to do beginning in 1998. But if the DOE continues to act as if it's above the law, the courts should order it to reimburse electricity companies -- and consumers -- for all of the money they have contributed to the Nuclear Waste Fund. Georgia alone has paid $662.3 million. Then again, the DOE could use some of the money to power America's future by bringing back nuclear recycling.

(The writer is a professor of nuclear and radiological engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.)

More