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Nuclear Policy » Article / Op-Ed

Reprocessing Spent Nuclear Fuel Too Risky

November 17, 2008 ·

Nuclear energy is not the right alternative for the United States.

The push for new nuclear reactors became a top-tier issue in the presidential race. Yet one aspect of the debate received little attention: reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. This issue is especially relevant to Ohio, where the U.S. Energy Department has considered locating such a facility near Portsmouth.

The idea is to recycle the uranium and plutonium used in nuclear reactors. Spent fuel has to be treated to chemically separate these elements from other highly radioactive byproducts. Proponents say that reprocessing used reactor fuel is vital to the growth of nuclear power because it would reduce waste that needs to be stored deep underground.

Sen. John McCain, a prominent supporter of nuclear reprocessing, pointed to France, where he said that reprocessing has been going on "for many, many years without any accidents or difficulties or problems."

Yet behind the rhetoric are stark facts:

• A reprocessing facility would become a dump for the largest, most lethal source of high-heat radioactivity in the United States and possibly the world.

• Reprocessing does not significantly reduce the amount of radioactive waste that has to be buried.

• The cost of nuclear recycling rivals the recent bailout of Wall Street investment banks.

The first major problem with reprocessing is that it doesn't come close to solving the challenge of nuclear waste. In fact, as a reprocessing facility chops and dissolves used fuel rods, it releases thousands of times more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear reactors and generates several dangerous waste streams. Denmark, Norway, and Ireland have sought the closure of reprocessing plants in France and Great Britain because of radioactive waste washing up on their shores. Just a few grams of waste would deliver lethal radiation doses in a matter of seconds in a crowded area.

For three decades, we've been trying to clean up the results of Cold War-era reprocessing in West Valley, N.Y. Tens of millions of gallons of high-level radioactive wastes from the recycling of plutonium and uranium for nuclear weapons remain in gigantic, aging, leaky tanks.

Over almost 30 years, the Department of Energy has spent billions of dollars to process less than 1 percent of these wastes for disposal.

In 2006, Nuclear Energy Institute President Frank L. Bowman said, "Nuclear power plants will always create long-lived waste byproducts that require long-term management."

The second major problem with reprocessing is that it makes the proliferation challenge worse. While the plutonium in spent nuclear fuel has potential energy value, it also is a nuclear explosive, requiring extraordinary safeguards against theft and diversion. Unlike plutonium bound up in spent nuclear fuel, separated plutonium does not have radiation significant enough to deter theft and bomb making.

Over the past 50 years, there have been several unsuccessful efforts to use plutonium as a fuel, including two reactor melt-downs in the United States. Of the 370 metric tons of plutonium extracted from spent fuel over the past several decades, about one-third has been used. About 250 tons of plutonium sit at reprocessing facilities around the world — enough to fuel more than 40,000 nuclear weapons.

The third major problem with reprocessing is the price tag. In 1996, the National Academy of Sciences completed an extensive study on the feasibility of recycling nuclear fuel and found it would cost up to $700 billion in 2008 dollars. Just two years ago, the academy reiterated its findings, saying, "There is no economic justification for going forward with this program at anything approaching a commercial scale."

The French government has yet to establish a disposal site for the large amount of radioactive detritus piling up at its reprocessing facility in La Hague — something that threatens to unravel public support.

Waste, proliferation and cost: Three strikes, and reprocessing is out. We are better off investing in renewable energy and conservation, rather than pouring billions of dollars into this costly and very risky endeavor.