U.S. should look to recycle nuke waste
Earlier this month, a nuclear recycling plant in England suffered a dangerous leak of radioactive nuclear fuel that had been dissolved in a nitric acid concentrate. The story was huge in Europe but received scant attention in the United States.
Maybe that’s because nuclear reprocessing isn’t even on the radar screen in terms of how Americans plan to deal with the mounting waste (more than 50,000 tons and rising) at approximately 70 power plants nationwide. That’s too bad. England’s problems notwithstanding, the United States would get much more practical benefit from concentrating its resources on developing recycling technologies than on finding a place — preferably in a politically weak state such as Utah — to dump spent fuel rods that nature will need thousands of years to neutralize.
Last week, Utah lost another important battle in the war to keep Private Fuel Storage — a consortium of nuclear power concerns — from establishing a waste storage facility in Skull Valley, about 50 miles from Salt Lake City. A board of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refused to overturn its earlier ruling in favor of the facility, which would keep spent nuclear fuel rods in casks that are stored above ground.
The state’s options for keeping the stuff out now seem as thin as onion skin. Meanwhile, two factors are becoming increasingly ominous. One is that congressional opposition to a permanent repository in Nevada seems to be growing, thanks to the power of the Senate minority leader, who is from Nevada. The other is that, as Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.’s attorney assigned to this issue was quick to reiterate this week, the casks that would be used to store rods in Utah wouldn’t be compatible with the casks required for Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
This adds credibility to the worry that the Skull Valley’s “temporary” storage facility really would be a permanent one.
But the long, drawn out and nowhere-near-finished ordeal of locating a nuclear waste dump in the United States is a testament to the futility of this strategy. Even if a permanent site were approved, the amount of highly radioactive waste in need of storage would continue to mount with no end in sight, and the roadways would be full of the stuff in transit.
The United States hasn’t thought seriously about nuclear recycling since President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order in 1977 outlawing it. His concern was that recycling produces plutonium, which, if fallen into the wrong hands, could be used to make nuclear bombs. That concern remains today, of course, but the United States could establish strict security measures to ensure that it won’t happen. That is what is done at reprocessing plants in Europe.
When spent fuel rods are recycled, they are dissolved in a concentrated nitric acid, producing uranium, plutonium and a small amount of highly radioactive waste that can then be buried in pellet form. The plutonium and uranium can be made into a mixed oxide fuel.
This process is not without its critics. They assail it as expensive and inefficient. After the leak at England’s Thorp plant, they also criticize it as dangerous.
The dangers shouldn’t be a worry. The United States can learn from troubles elsewhere, and the dangers of recycling couldn’t be much different than other dangers posed by nuclear power generation in general. More to the point, the transport and long-term storage of spent fuel rods — in places like Utah’s Skull Valley — poses dangers, as well.
If the United States were to concentrate on reprocessing, more efficient methods would surely result. In the end, the amount of waste the nation has to store would be reduced significantly.