Research & Commentary: Nuclear Energy Reprocessing

Published May 24, 2010

Nuclear energy has become a hotly debated issue with President Barack Obama’s announcement that he wants to triple public financing for new nuclear power plants (through $54.5 billion in federal loan guarantees) while opposing implementation of the Yucca Mountain project for storing spent nuclear fuel (SNF), designated by Congress almost a quarter-century ago. The nation’s nuclear waste remains stored at various reactor sites above ground.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports that by the end of this year civilian nuclear reactors will have produced more than 60,000 metric tons of spent fuel, about enough to cover a football field six yards deep. U.S. nuclear waste policy since the 1970s has been that nuclear fuel is used once in a reactor and then permanently disposed of in long-term storage, referred to as the “once through” fuel cycle. “Recent studies indicate that the main constraint on expanding nuclear power over the next 50 years will be a shortage of repositories to hold nuclear waste,” noted John Sackett, associate laboratory director for engineering research at Argonne National Labs.

DOE engineers say technology is available to make reprocessing SNF more resistant to terrorist misuse, thereby mitigating prior concerns. If the president wants to support expansion of nuclear capacity, he will consider the case for breeder reactors for extraction of new fuels by effective management of spent fuel reprocessing. Reprocessing requires commercially viable breeder reactors that can burn up all the residual fissile material found in spent fuels; otherwise, reprocessing will simply exchange one form of nuclear waste for another.

The following articles review the challenges and benefits of a comprehensive spent nuclear fuel reprocessing strategy and development of next-generation breeder reactors capable of recycling the residue left from the reprocessing operations.

House Science and Technology Committee Hearing on “Advancing Technology for Nuclear Fuel Recycling: What Should Our Research, Development and Demonstration Strategy Be?”
This summary of testimony of witnesses at the June 17, 2009 hearing of the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee considers the value of nuclear power, the need for reprocessing, and other nuclear power policy issues.

Advanced Nuclear Fuel Cycle Research and Development
Mark T. Peters of the Argonne National Laboratory argues that to maximize the benefits of nuclear energy in an expanding nuclear energy future, it will ultimately be necessary to close the fuel cycle by recycling nuclear fuel as other countries do.

Statement of Dr. Alan S. Hanson, Executive Vice President, Technology and Used Fuel Management, AREVA NC Inc., Before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, June 17, 2009
Dr. Hanson confirms that recycling could reduce the volume of material destined for the high-level waste repository by at least 75 percent.

Advancing Technology for Nuclear Fuel Recycling: What Should Our Research, Development and Demonstration Strategy Be?
In her June 17, 2009 testimony before the U.S. House Science & Technology Committee, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Americas Senior Vice President Lisa Price advocates re-fissioning recycled nuclear fuel in a sodium-cooled breeder reactor to produce electricity and calls for implementation of closed cycle instead of the current “once through” system in the United States.

An Assessment of the Proliferation Risks of Spent Fuel Reprocessing and Alternative Nuclear Waste Management Strategies
In June 2009 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology, Dr. Charles D. Ferguson, Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations, contends other countries’ ventures into reprocessing make it imperative for the United States to reevaluate its policies and redouble its efforts to prevent the further spread of reprocessing plants to non-nuclear-weapon states.

Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: U.S. Policy Development
Industrial engineering and infrastructure policy specialist Anthony Andrews considers the U.S. Department of Energy’s proposal for a new generation of “proliferation-resistant” reactor and reprocessing technology.

Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste
This Scientific American article notes that fast-neutron reactors could extract much more energy from recycled nuclear fuel, minimize the risk of weapons proliferation, and markedly reduce the amount of time nuclear waste has to be isolated.

Obama Budget Abandons Yucca Mountain
In this article for Environment & Climate News, Drew Thornley reports on the Obama administration’s plans to force a significant energy policy redirection by pulling the plug on funds for permanent nuclear waste storage at Yucca.

Ironically, NIMBY Results in Opposite Effect
Clinton E. Crackel of the Nuclear Fuels Reprocessing Coalition examines the fallacy of the “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome, which activist groups use to stymie building of nuclear energy plants.

Better Nuclear Waste Management Needed
Nuclear Fuels Reprocessing Coalition co-chairman Clinton E. Crackel examines the rationale behind the request of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that the United States build 45 more nuclear power plants as a means of reducing foreign energy dependence.

Nuclear Energy Past, Present, and Future
In this article for Environment & Climate News, Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr, Ph.D. explains that the process of generating electricity in a nuclear power plant is actually fairly simple and safe.

For further information on this subject, visit Environment & Climate News at or The Heartland Institute’s Web site at

Nothing in this message is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. If you have any questions about this issue or the Heartland Web site, you may contact Jay Lehr, science director, at [email protected], or James M. Taylor, senior fellow, at [email protected].