A History of America’s Nuclear Power Experience: Part Three

Published October 1, 2009

[This month’s column on nuclear energy by Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr, Ph.D. is the third part of a review of the book Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey, by William Tucker.]

In this third segment of my review of William Tucker’s outstanding book Terrestrial Energy, I consider Tucker’s assessment of available opportunities to solve the nuclear waste problem by reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

Recycling Opportunities

If U.S. nuclear power plants were to resume reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, as is done in France and other nations, only 2 to 3 percent of the material now scheduled to be stored at the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository would have to be stored there, and the whole nuclear waste problem would disappear. After reprocessing, the total unusable portion of three full years of nuclear power production can be stored indefinitely in a dry cask about four times the size of a telephone booth.

The stated rationale for not reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is the concern that reprocessing nuclear fuel produces weapons-grade plutonium that could in theory be smuggled to undesirable entities. What is not commonly recognized, however, is that the plutonium in spent fuel rods is not weapons-grade material. It consists of four different isotopes, which essentially pollutes the plutonium 239 necessary to make nuclear weapons.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Sam Nunn (D-GA) negotiated a remarkable deal with the Russian government under which we are purchasing enriched uranium from their stockpile of disassembled weapons and recycling it through American power plants as fuel. One of every 10 light bulbs in America is now lit by a former Soviet weapon, because 20 percent of our electricity is produced by nuclear power and half of the fuel is Russian.

If ever the world has beaten swords into plowshares, this is it, writes Tucker. Actually, recycled Soviet weaponry depressed the uranium market for years, and uranium from Soviet weapons will probably run out in the next decade. Anticipation of this shortfall, plus an anticipated nuclear revival, has raised uranium prices from $10 a pound in 2004 to $80 a pound in 2008.

Developing New Technologies

In February 2006 the U.S. government announced the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), through which it will work with other nations possessing advanced nuclear technologies to develop new proliferation-resistant recycling technologies in order to produce more energy, reduce waste, and minimize proliferation concerns.

GNEP goals include reducing U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels and building a new generation of nuclear power plants in the United States. A significant new element in the strategy is the development of new reprocessing technologies at advanced recycling centers to put to rest fears the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel might lead to a proliferation of weapons-grade plutonium.

Solutions Are Available

It would be wrong to underestimate the costs of nuclear reprocessing. Reprocessing entails multiple steps that add cost to the production of nuclear power. However, reprocessing very effectively solves the problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel.

The important thing to remember is that the technology currently exists and is being utilized in other countries to virtually eliminate nuclear waste through the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Reprocessing will become more efficient and economical as technology continues to advance.

Thus it is entirely possible, utilizing existing technology, to produce nuclear power without spreading any dangerous chemicals or materials into the environment. Also, the spent nuclear fuel that currently exists is all sitting in one place waiting to be recycled.

All the high-level by-products from 50 years of nuclear fission in this country could be assembled 10 feet high on a single football field. The French store all their high-grade waste from 30 years of providing 75 percent of their nation’s electricity in a single room in La Hague.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.