The question of what to do with all the waste products from nuclear power plants has plagued government officials, industry executives, and scientists and engineers for decades. In the United States, a long-planned repository in Nevada that would store the nation's spent nuclear fuel has been held up for years in legal and political squabbling. Now, as the U.S. considers resuming the licensing of new nuclear facilities to bolster domestic energy production and reduce dependence on carbon-based fuels, the problem of dealing with the radioactive byproducts of nuclear power generation is taking on an even greater sense of urgency. Does anyone have an alternative to simply burying the dangerous waste in the biggest, deepest hole we can dig? It turns out one country has been trying an alternative solution all along: France. In this month's feature "Nuclear Wasteland", Contributing Editor Peter Fairley writes that the French practice of reprocessing depleted nuclear fuel may be more successful than critics have made it out to be.

Fairley notes that the French experience clearly shows that nuclear reprocessing need not be the dangerous mess that other countries, including the U.S., have claimed in the past. France, he notes, now reprocesses well over 1000 metric tons of spent fuel every year without incident at the La Hague chemical complex, in Normandy. La Hague receives all the spent fuel rods from the country's 59 reactors. Operated by the state-controlled nuclear giant Areva, the facility has racked up a good, if not unblemished, environmental record.

Moreover, U.S. authorities now believe they have a way of eliminating reprocessing's other major liability: the risk of spreading a supply of raw materials for bomb making. In recent years, Department of Energy engineers have developed an approach, they claim, that is more resistant to terrorist misuse, thereby mitigating concerns about nuclear security. Hence, the government is already supplying recycled fuels to one commercial reactor and planning tests of new proliferation-resistant reprocessing technologies. However, there's a catch (as it seems there always is with nuclear power): To do the job of recycling useful material from the spent fuel rods from nuclear plants most efficiently, we would need to construct special breeder reactors to break down the most long-lived elements in atomic waste.

And there, the politics of nuclear technology, at present, brings us to a halt. The French model is good, but it needs to be extended if it is to transform the problem of disposing a massive amount of high-level toxic waste to the problem of disposing a high-level of massively toxic waste. In the U.S., the Bush administration has begun to argue that, despite the technical and economic hurdles, it is time to give this approach another try. Early last year, President Bush singled out France's nuclear program for a rare bit of praise, telling the American people in a radio chat that reprocessing will "allow us to produce more energy, while dramatically reducing the amount of nuclear waste."

As one expert that Fairley spoke with notes, "Everybody is in agreement that the right system ultimately results in multiple recycles in fast [breeder] reactors, so that's where things are going." Let's hope that this is a direction we can all follow safely.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.