Thursday, April 24, 2008

Time to reconsider reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel

Since it now appears that nuclear energy has a very bright future, partially due to the fact that it does not spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and cause global warming and climate change), it makes a lot of sense to reconsider our moratorium on reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. The goal of the moratorium was to deter "proliferation" and development of nuclear weapons programs, but I have always been dubious of that "benefit." Failure of the U.S. to reprocess spent fuel does not appear to have deterred North Korea (and Iran and Syria?) or Pakistan or India in any way. We are simply shooting ourselves in both feet. We need to reconsider reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel for two purposes: 1) decrease the cost of producing large quantities of new fuel and 2) dramatically reduce the magnitude of the radioactive "waste" that needs to be stored.

Actual radioactive "waste" in spent nucelar fuel is really only about 3% of the weight of the original fuel. The vast bulk is simply unenriched uranium. There is some residual enriched uranium as well as some plutonium. The remaining 3% or so are the nasty "fission products" that do need to be separated and stored. See: Chemical Processes and Nuclear Reactor Fuel:

Spent fuel from nuclear reactors still contains considerable amounts of 235 U but now has generated significant 239Pu.  After 3 years in a reactor, 1,000 lbs. of 3.3-percent-enriched uranium (967 lbs. 238 U and 33 lbs. 235U) contain 8 lbs. of 235U and 8.9 lbs. of plutonium isotopes along with 943 lbs. of 238U and assorted fission products. Separating the 235U and 239Pu from the other components of spent fuel significantly addresses two major concerns. It greatly reduces the long-lived radioactivity of the residue and it allows purified 235U and 239Pu to be used as reactor fuel. (Courtesy of the Uranium Information Center)

Reasonable safeguards can be put in place to reduce the chance of proliferation even if the risk cannot be reduced to zero.

Given the new anxiety over carbon emissions, nuclear energy is once again a relatively safe and very sane energy choice to be given serious consideration. And given concerns about waste storage, reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is really the only sensible route to go.

-- Jack Krupansky


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