Nuclear Reprocessing

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2010

Common sense suggests that for the United States to maintain prosperity and energy security, it must exploit all forms of energy, including nuclear. Unfortunately, the country scared itself to death about nuclear power back in the 1970s and as a result, no new commercial nuclear power plant has been built in the United States in decades.

However, nuclear energy is both efficient and safe. For instance, France has generated 75 percent of its electrical power from nuclear energy over the past three decades. The efficiency of nuclear power generation means cleaner air. In addition, nuclear power has a proven record of safety. The requirement for energy diversity and clean air suggest that nuclear-generated electricity will become even more vital in the future. Yet environmental activists not only reject the need for new nuclear power plants in the United States but also oppose renewing the licenses of nuclear power plants currently in operation.

A major obstacle to reinvigorating the commercial nuclear industry in the United States is dealing with what we persist in calling nuclear ‘waste:” used nuclear fuel that can be “reprocessed” to generate more energy for the United States. Presently, there are some 60,000 metric tons of such material stored at various sites, including nuclear plants, around the country. Reprocessing removes valuable plutonium and uranium from used nuclear fuel rods, chemically processing them into a mixed-oxide fuel for use at nuclear power plants. Not all of this used fuel can be reprocessed, but 95 percent of it can be.

So why has the United States permitted this wasting asset? The answer is that President Carter banned the process in the 1970s because of concerns about nuclear proliferation. But not all other countries followed the US lead. Both France and Great Britain continued to reprocess their used nuclear fuel safely and efficiently and none of it has been diverted from British or French recycling facilities to weapons production

Without the option of reprocessing non-weapons nuclear material, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982, which established a fund to pay for the storage of used nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Yucca Mountain project required all users of nuclear-generated electricity pay a small monthly fee, which generated $16.6 billion for the fund. With interest, it eventually reached $ 33.2 billion.

Recently however, President Obama, probably at the insistence of Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate majority leader, cancelled the Yucca Mountain project and directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to empanel a commission to study alternative to the Nevada site. This commission, co-chaired by Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft, is giving serious consideration to the combination of reprocessing and centralized interim storage, the French and British approach, as a workable, cost-efficient alternative. It is certainly far superior to the current US practice of storing used fuel at nuclear plants indefinitely.

The termination of the Yucca Mountain project thus provides an opportunity to rejuvenate nuclear reprocessing in the United States. By reprocessing used fuel now being stored at scores of nuclear plant sites around the country, the United States would significantly reduce the amount of nuclear waste to be disposed of in a repository, thereby eliminating a principal hurdle to the reinvigoration of commercial nuclear power in this country. Unused money from the Yucca Mountain project could be used to fund reprocessing.

The technology for nuclear reprocessing originated in the United States, and as the French and British have shown, reprocessing nuclear fuel can be done safely, efficiently, and without contributing to nuclear proliferation. Nuclear power is necessary for US prosperity and security. Reprocessing is a step in the right direction.

Mackubin T. Owens is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport RI, and editor of Orbis, the quarterly journal of the Foreign Policy Research institute in Philadelphia.