– U.S. To Bury Almost All Existing Nuclear Waste; Recycling Deferred At Least 20 Years (Forbes, Jan 28, 2013):
There’s little hope that the 70,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel dispersed across the United States will ever be recycled, according to a recent study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory—so nearly all existing waste will go into the earth.
In a study completed late last year, Oak Ridge officials determined that the U.S. is at least 20 years away from large-scale reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, if it decides to pursue such technologies. By then, they estimate, nuclear plants will have generated another 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel.
“Based on the technical assessment, about 68,450 (metric tons) or about 98 percent of the total current inventory by mass, can proceed to permanent disposal without the need to ensure retrievability for reuse or research purposes,” Oak Ridge officials conclude in a report issued late last year.The remaining 2 percent should be reserved for research into storage and reprocessing technologies, the report advised.
The Oak Ridge report came to light this month when it was cited by the Department of Energy in a document revealing DOE’s plan to seek a new permanent geologic waste depository. The country’s previous depository, Yucca Mountain, was defunded by Congress and the Obama Administration in 2011.
The United States long opposed the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel because of terrorism and proliferation concerns, but DOE began researching new reprocessing technologies in 2005, and the Obama Administration has remained open to new technologies.
In 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Congress “there is research that has to be done, again, because reprocessing has the potential for greatly reducing both the amount and lifetime of the waste and to extend the nuclear fuel.”
At the time—before meltdowns and hydrogen explosions damaged spent fuel pools at Fukushima—the U.S. appeared more open to recycling processes like those employed in France.
After Fukushima, The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, co-chaired by Chu, adopted more cautious language about recycling: “no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments—including advances in reprocessing and recycling technologies—have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenges the nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.”
But neither the Blue Ribbon report nor the administration’s response close the door to reprocessing, calling it “premature for the United States to commit, as a matter of policy, to ‘closing’ the nuclear fuel cycle given the large uncertainties that exist about the merits and commercial viability of different fuel cycle and technology options.”
Although reprocessing offers some benefits over long-term storage, few anti-nuclear activists embrace it.
“Recycling is a euphemism for reprocessing which is one of the worst polluters of the atmosphere and the ocean, and is a direct conduit to proliferation,” said Mali Martha Lightfoot, executive director of the Helen Caldicott Foundation. “It is not really a solution to anything except how can the industry get more of our money. It also ups the ante for reactor accident danger, as in the case of Fukushima, because MOX fuel has plutonium in it.”
Mixed-oxide or MOX fuel is recycled from nuclear warheads.
The United States’ current inventory of domestic used nuclear fuel “is massive, diverse, dispersed, and increasing,” according to the Oak Ridge report. Stored at 79 temporary sites in 34 states, it represents”a total of about 23 billion curies of long-lived radioactivity.”