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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Should we Recycle Spent Nuclear Fuel?

Air Date: Week of April 1, 2011

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One proposed way to deal with the nuclear waste that comes out of reactors is to reprocess it into a new usable fuel. France and Britain are currently reprocessing fuel, but Living on Earth’s Bruce Gellerman talks with professor Charles Forsberg from MIT about why this process may not be a solution for the U.S.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

GELLERMAN: And I'm Bruce Gellerman. One of the doomed reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant uses what’s called MOX, or mixed oxide fuel. It’s produced by reprocessing spent fuel rods. Instead of using the rods just once in reactors, the old fuel was sent to special reprocessing plants, shipped back as MOX, and re-used.

President Carter abandoned efforts to build a reprocessing plant in the United States because in making MOX, you produce plutonium - and there's a danger of nuclear weapons proliferation. But now, with nearly 50 years of nuclear waste piling up at reactor sites around the country, reprocessing is getting a second look. Charles Forsberg is a research scientist and Executive Director of MIT’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study.

FORSBERG: When you take nuclear fuel and you put it in a reactor, the reactor is not capable of burning up all of the fuel value. And so the spent fuel has residual fuel value, and reprocessing is a way to recover the fuel value and recycle it back to the reactor.

A photo of the Savannah River Site in South Carolina in September of 1982. At this site bombs are reprocessed into fuel for nuclear reactors. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

GELLERMAN: How is this reprocessing or recycling of the spent fuel rods done? How is it actually accomplished - is it very difficult?

FORSBERG: In chemistry terms, it’s a fairly simple process, but because everything is highly radioactive, it has to be done by remote control. It has to be done in shielded facilities. What you’re talking about is chemically dissolving the fuel in nitric acid and selectively extracting the uranium and plutonium, which is then converted into solid oxides, which in turn is converted into brand new fuel assemblies for reactors.

GELLERMAN: Now when you reprocess a spent fuel rod, what about the stuff that’s left over - what do you do with that? And is it radioactive?

FORSBERG: The stuff that is left over is extremely radioactive, and that is converted into a high level waste glass - very similar to the Pyrex glassware that you find in a kitchen for pie tins or for measuring cups. And that waste, of course, must go to a geological repository.

GELLERMAN: And it’s being done today, isn’t it?

FORSBERG: Reprocessing is done in some countries - France, in particular; some in Britain, and the Japanese are starting up a reprocessing plant. But we do not do reprocessing in the U.S.

At the current time, it is uneconomic relative to using uranium as a fuel in nuclear reactors, which is why it is not done in the United States commercially. France and Great Britain and Japan, for a variety of policy reasons, have chosen to reprocess spent fuel, but it’s not for economic reasons.

GELLERMAN: So these sites around the world - are they using the same process to re-process their nuclear fuel?

FORSBERG: Yes, everybody’s using the same process that was developed in the 1950’s. It’s been refined, but there’ve been no fundamental changes in how it is done.

GELLERMAN: So should we be opening up these old fuel rods, casks, and these pools and be recycling our spent fuel?

Yucca Mountain was the designated deep geological nuclear depository for U.S. nuclear waste - but funding for development has been withdrawn. (Wikipedia Creative Commons)

FORSBERG: Our recent study, which I’m the executive director of, came to the conclusion that today we do not have sufficient incentives or knowledge to make a decision to commit to reprocessing. It would take about 20 years to begin a reprocessing industry, and until we have a better vision of the future, it is premature for us to go to reprocessing today.

GELLERMAN: So - and the United States does have plans to build a new reprocessing plant, am I right? They’re going to recycle old plutonium from nuclear weapons.

FORSBERG: That’s a little bit different. There is a non-proliferation agreement with the Russians to take this very special, very clean weapons-grade plutonium, and convert it into fresh fuel assemblies. However, in that case, the starting material is literally a nuclear weapon, rather than a spent fuel assembly. They will take the weapon apart, take the plutonium out, process it, clean it up, and convert it into a fuel assembly that’d be then sent to a utility, like any other fuel assembly, to be burnt and produce electricity.

GELLERMAN: But since we have so much waste in our spent fuel pools and these dry casks that are sitting on sites, should we be - not throwing it away permanently - but kind of, maybe, banking it for the future?

FORSBERG: I would certainly agree that we should bank it for the future, and in that context we have three options. We can store it at the reactor sites in what we call ‘dry cask storage.’ We could store it in a centralized storage facility. Or we could place it in a geological repository, where we have carefully designed it to allow future recovery if we change our minds and decide we need that spent fuel back.

MIT Professor Charles Forsberg. ( MIT)

In short, we can dispose of it today with the option that we can recover it if it turns out that we need it in the future. It’s the way to preserve our options so that we have, essentially, a ‘no regrets’ policy.

GELLERMAN: Right now we don’t have, seemingly, any policy. Yucca seems to be off the table - is that the right site or should we be looking some place else?

FORSBERG: Well, I would make two observations. First, we do own a geological repository for defense waste. A waste isolation pilot plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico - this geological repository has been operating for a full decade. The fundamental reason we do not have a commercial repository today is it’s simply not been of sufficient importance for both political parties to come to agreements.

When we begin to get a consensus on the need for a geological repository, I think we can site one fairly quickly and build it, but the requirement is a bipartisan consensus, rather than each party trying to dump the repository on somebody else. What does not exist is a strong, bipartisan consensus on the path forward, which hopefully the Blue Ribbon Commission will help make happen.

GELLERMAN: And that Blue Ribbon Commission comes out this summer, if I’m not mistaken.

FORSBERG: That is correct.

GELLERMAN: What do you think they’re going to say?

FORSBERG: My suspicion is they will say two things. First, we should maintain the option of reprocessing the fuel for the future - not do it today, but maintain the option. And second, I think they will make a set of very strong recommendations on how to build a repository gaining a political consensus to make it possible.

GELLERMAN: Well Professor, thanks so very much - I really appreciate it.

FORSBERG: You're welcome.

CURWOOD: Charles Forsberg is a research scientist and Executive Director of MIT’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study.



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