EDITOR’S NOTE: This is first of a two-part series. Next up, “Taking Nuclear Green.”
Probably everyone reading this article recycles something each week as they put out their trash. It has become a no-brainer. People get it. Recycle and re-purpose materials and you extend the life of landfills saving everyone money.
It also is the right thing to do. But when it comes to the used nuclear fuel from our commercial reactors, our long-range plan is simply to bury it. That has been our policy for decades, but changing the policy may be something the next president can bring about. We have in this country more than 70,000 tons of used fuel stored at more than 75 sites in 33 states, and the 100 U.S. commercial reactors produce about 2,000 additional tons of used fuel each year.
Because we don’t recycle this nuclear material, it would take nine Yucca Mountain repositories by the turn of the next century to house all of the used fuel being produced.
Getting one Yucca has proved daunting, let alone nine. In the meantime, dozens of states like Georgia and South Carolina spend hundreds of millions of dollars to let the material sit in highly engineered casks and pools at plant sites. And these have to be replaced every 100 years – for about 1 million years. Definitely not sustainable.
Starting in 1990, the French did what the United States backed away from – they built a commercial recycling plant for used nuclear fuel.
Gary M. Mignogna, president of France's Areva operations in the United States, said, "It’s a travesty to leave this waste to future generations when we can be extracting more energy from it now and reducing the toxicity from 10,000 years to 100 years."
And Mignogna should know because the French took the uranium-filled fuel rods and figured out how to safely reuse 96 percent of the material. By separating the uranium and plutonium from the fission products, they take advantage of all of the energy left in the material.
More importantly, they turn the remaining 4 percent of waste into an inert glass product that requires minimum security and safeguard protocols. If we did that here in the United States, it would significantly reduce potential waste going into a Yucca Mountain and extend the facility’s life.
So how is it that the U.S. would not want to do the same? Nolan E. Hertel, Georgia Tech professor of nuclear engineering and a waste expert, notes that one result of the ban on nuclear recycling by former President Jimmy Carter, meant to prevent nuclear proliferation, is more than 2,400 tons of nuclear waste being stored on-site in Georgia.
Tim Echols serves on the Georgia Public Service Commission.