For roughly a quarter century there has been a hiatus in nuclear-plant construction in Europe and North America. Now new plants are being built in France, Finland, and Russia, and new reactor proposals are gathering steam in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. But to undergo a true resurgence—which many analysts argue is necessary to help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions—the nuclear power industry needs a coherent plan for dealing with its reactors’ radioactive and toxic leftovers.
Burying the waste is a slow, politically painful process that leaves much to be desired. The long-planned U.S. repository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been immensely controversial. Yet if built as currently planned, it may be too small when it finally opens to accommodate all the high-level waste that has piled up in the country during half a century of commercial nuclear energy.
Lately, nuclear advocates, particularly in the United States, say they’ve found a better solution, or at least a path to one. It’s based on the recycling and reuse of spent nuclear fuel, known as fuel reprocessing in the industry’s jargon. Reprocessing breaks down fuel chemically, recovering fissionable material for use in new fuels. Thus, there is less highly radioactive material that needs to be sealed in caskets, buried deep underground, or otherwise permanently isolated from humankind.
“If we do reprocessing and recycle, we can increase the capacity of Yucca Mountain 100-fold,” says Phillip Finck, a nuclear engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, in Illinois. Suddenly, instead of being crammed full on its opening day, Yucca Mountain would be able to handle everything the industry could throw at it until 2050 or beyond, staving off searches for additional Yucca Mountains.
As it happens, there’s an ideal test case with which to evaluate that enticing proposition: France, which never backed away from nuclear energy and which has long relied on reprocessing as the linchpin of its power reactor fuel system.
The French experience clearly does show that reprocessing need not be the dangerous mess that other countries, including the United States, have made of it [see photo, “Blue Glow of Success,” above]. The U.S. military used reprocessing for several decades to separate plutonium from spent fuels, providing fissionable material for bombs. The result was widespread contamination—which has been in some cases irremediable—in the central Washington desert and the South Carolina coastal plain.
France, in contrast, now reprocesses well over 1000 metric tons of spent fuel every year without incident at the La Hague chemical complex, at the head of Normandy’s wind-blasted Cotentin peninsula. La Hague receives all the spent fuel rods from France’s 59 reactors. The sprawling facility, operated by the state-controlled nuclear giant Areva, has racked up a good, if not unblemished, environmental record.
The United States now claims to have a way of eliminating reprocessing’s other major liability: the risk of spreading a supply of raw materials for bomb making. The United States officially banned reprocessing of spent fuel for power reactors in 1977, during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, who feared that proliferation of reprocessing technology would make it too easy for wayward nations or even terrorist groups to obtain the raw material for bombs. But in recent years, the U.S. Department of Energy engineers, including Finck, have developed an approach that they claim is more resistant to terrorist misuse, thereby mitigating concerns about nuclear security and proliferation. The result is that, three decades later, pressure is mounting for another look at reprocessing. The U.S. government is already supplying recycled fuels to one commercial reactor and planning tests of new proliferation-resistant reprocessing technologies.
Nevertheless, although it may be safe to proceed with reprocessing, France’s experience suggests that reprocessing as done now is not ready to catalyze a full-blown nuclear renaissance. The problem in a nutshell is that without breeder reactors, which can break down the most long-lived elements in nuclear waste, reprocessing comes nowhere near achieving Finck’s 100-fold reduction in that waste.
France’s engineers tried harder than those in any other country to build and run breeder reactors reliably at a commercial scale, but ultimately they failed. The result is that even in France—the best real-world model of what reprocessing can accomplish—the technology remains a tantalizing but only partial solution to the problem of high-level nuclear waste.