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Recycling used nuclear fuel is a prudent energy move

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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.)

Comments (11) Add comment
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overburdened_taxpayer
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overburdened_taxpayer 04/12/09 - 07:13 am
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Makes sense to me.

Makes sense to me.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 04/12/09 - 08:32 am
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Yep, ditto.

Yep, ditto.

Longleaf
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Longleaf 04/12/09 - 09:24 am
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Excellent editorial. Another

Excellent editorial. Another incentive to build new power reactors at SRS where fuel reprocessing facilities already exist.

Axil
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Axil 04/12/09 - 10:21 pm
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The answer to nuclear waste

The answer to nuclear waste is the thorium fuel cycle and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). Dr. Edward Teller, the father of Fusion, after a lifetime of work on every aspect of nuclear technology had at the very end of his life come to this conclusion in his final paper: the LFTR is the best of all possible reactor types. At the end of the service life of the Lftr, the reactor vessel is sent back to the factory where it is reduced to liquid fluoride salts that become the feedstock of a next new Lftr. This feedstock can only be used by the new Lftr and not for bombs. The waste products are held at the factory for a few hundred years to cool down before they are mined for the many precious elements contained within like platinum and iridium. Now that's what I call a safe, efficient and thrifty mode of operation! To learn more, see the following Google videos: What Fusion Wanted To Be http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHs2Ugxo7-8 Liquid Fluoride Reactors: A New Beginning for an Old Idea http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8F0tUDJ35So

Laguria
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Laguria 04/12/09 - 10:52 pm
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Where is PT on this subject?

Where is PT on this subject?

BMused
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BMused 04/13/09 - 11:45 am
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There the engineers go again,

There the engineers go again, making sense.

I have read and heard talks by proponents of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing (recycling to those who prefer to call it.) There is a lot of difference in the costs and benefits of present technology reprocessing and more advanced forms. The latter, demonstrated in the laboratory but not on a production scale, offer more promise in terms of changing, but not eliminating, the quantity and radiological characteristics of the waste. But the costs are not much more than guesses. The 2003 MIT study on the Future of Nuclear Power forecast that reprocessed fuel will not be economical compared to fresh fuel in the US for decades.

Another concern would be that once a recycling facility is proposed for a specific site, we will hear from opponents near that site as well as people who are easily stirred by anti-nuclear opponents along transport routes to the site. Transportation is safe, but the public often do not know that. Nevada exploited that confidence gap in the Yucca Mountain campaign. Few in NV really oppose Yucca Mountain so much as they are against transportation of waste to it.

basinincrisis
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basinincrisis 04/14/09 - 10:22 am
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How much more water will

How much more water will reprocessing use from the River and do we have that capacity? Seems like we keep adding and adding to the burden of the river, while we are faced with rising sea levels (salt water wedge), population increases, additional nuclear reactors and fulfilling hydropower contracts during drought. When is enough going to be enough? A healthy and stable Savannah River Basin needs to be part of this.

SCEagle Eye
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SCEagle Eye 04/14/09 - 12:01 pm
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Reprocessing at SRS would

Reprocessing at SRS would mean that the site would become the nation's spent fuel dump and will be mightily opposed. A reprocessing plant (estimated by DOE to cost $15 billion) would mean that spent fuel would be shipped to SRS where it would be dissolved in acid, thus creating a huge mess. This costly process, which is being rejected worldwide, would only make the waste situation worse. But some would get rich, which seems to be the real driving force behind this scheme. If you love being overburdened with taxes you will love this nonsense.

Reindeargirl
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Reindeargirl 04/14/09 - 12:25 pm
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Reprocessing makes NO SENSE

Reprocessing makes NO SENSE economically or environmentally. It has failed on both counts in the few countries who have tried it, and created a toxic superfund site when tried at West Valley, NY in the seventies. WE DON"T WANT TO BE the NUCLEAR WASTE DUMP OF THE COUNTRY. If communities want nuclear power over other cleaner, cheaper forms of energy, THEY SHOULD KEEP THE WASTE ON SITE IN THEIR COMMUNITIES. Reprocessing does NOT eliminate nuclear waste, still requires a geologic repository, and USES LOTS OF WATER. Get over it SRS, and find another way for the future that doesn't involve leaving our descendants a thousand years worth of radioactive waste.

Little Lamb
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Little Lamb 04/14/09 - 01:58 pm
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Come on, Reindear.

Come on, Reindear. Re-processing reduces the VOLUME of nuclear waste that has to be deposited into a repository by many orders of magnitude, so the repository can be much smaller or will last much longer. Yes, re-processing uses water, but it does not CONSUME or otherwise destroy the water. The water is returned to the hydrologic cycle and can be re-used over and over and over again. Your arguments do not hold water.

Reindeargirl
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Reindeargirl 04/15/09 - 09:05 am
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Reprocessing is the dirtiest

Reprocessing is the dirtiest leg of the nuclear industry, creating a whole new waste stream, and results in the separation out of dangerous plutonium. Reprocessing around the world has produced a mountain of weapons grade Pu which is now stockpiled in various locations, creating huge terrorists threats. No nation has been able to re-use all the PU they have created. Sellafield, England is a national disaster and will no longer operate. The Japanese have been unsuccessful in getting their reprocessing going, only the French have been able to commericially reprocess, but remember, this is a socialist program, completely paid for with taxpayer money. Reprocessing is not commercially viable anywhere. This is not free market capitalism, it is corporate socialism at its worst. IF the nuclear industry wants to continue, it should stand on its only financial legs and stop sucking up taxpayer money that could be spent in better ways in this economy.

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