Can Nuclear Waste Be Recycled?

IS IT POSSIBLE?: Commercial-scale facilities could recycle toxic nuclear leftovers, turning them into fuel for next-generation reactors. But experts are wary.

Among the biggest challenges facing the nuclear power industry is figuring out what to do with all the waste. Radioactive leftovers have been piling up for decades, and it’s become clear that the controversial long-term repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, isn’t going to solve the problem entirely. The site’s capacity is 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste; by the end of 2006, nuclear power plants had generated some 56,000 metric tons of spent fuel, and that amount is growing by about 2,000 metric tons each year.

Nuclear power plants generate electricity by splitting uranium to produce heat and drive turbines. After about two years uranium is considered used up, or “spent,” and replaced with fresh fuel. The spent fuel and high-level waste are usually stored at the reactor in special pools, beneath at least 20 feet of water. Those pools, however, are filling up and will reach their limit by 2015, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has led to storage of waste in dry casks at reactor sites.

To overcome the seemingly intractable problem, President Bush unveiled a project in 2006 to build commercial-scale facilities to recycle toxic nuclear leftovers, turning them into fuel for next-generation reactors. The DOE estimates that recycling could separate at least as much spent fuel as is generated annually by the 104 operating US nuclear power reactors.

Through this Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), the Department of Energy is awarding tens of millions of dollars to industry, federal labs, and universities for developing the technology needed to get the first American recycling facilities and reactors up and running by 2025. In April, the agency announced up to $7.3 million for advanced reactor research, and publicized an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which operates six nuclear reactors, to explore fuel recycling.

“We’re just getting started, but the project is going to yield technical information used to develop national implementation strategies to manage nuclear fuel,” says TVA spokesman Gil Francis. “Yucca Mountain is the official repository, but it’s not going to have sufficient volume over time for all of the waste.”

Reprocessing spent fuel—separating the different radioactive elements so that some can be reused—isn’t new. France and the UK have been running recycling facilities for more than a decade, and in 2006 Japan switched on a plant. In fact, the DOE researched reprocessing until the 1970s, when the US banned it, fearing that the separated plutonium created by the process could lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons. Today, the agency, which oversees the GNEP, aims to build advanced reactors that would “burn” the radioactive waste repeatedly, converting it into less harmful, shorter-lived elements with each cycle; in comparison, the existing approach only burns it once.

While recycling might sound like a promising solution, the process has numerous critics. According to environmentalists, the endeavor is too costly, dangerous, and riddled with technological hurdles. Furthermore, Congress has been reluctant to fund GNEP; it cut the project’s budget from $167 million to $120 for fiscal year 2008. And on April 22, the US Government Accountability Office released a report that called into question the Bush Administration’s plans to push the development of full-scale recycling facilities, instead of first testing smaller models.

“The fuel recycling center is doomed to fail,” says Thomas Cochran, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They’re trying to resurrect a program that didn’t work the first time and won’t work the second.”

The GNEP couldn’t disagree more. It argues that by creating a closed system, waste could be cut drastically while generating electricity. At a recycling center, spent fuel would be separated into reusable uranium and transuranics (the most radiotoxic elements, like plutonium and neptunium, in used nuclear fuel), and non-usable waste that would be transported to a geological repository. The usable leftovers, meanwhile, would fuel an advanced recycling reactor, generating electricity.

But reprocessing is expensive. Japan’s facility cost $20 billion. And according to the GAO report, a plant that processes 3,000 metric tons of spent fuel a year could cost approximately $44 billion, and the price tag could climb, given uncertainties in designing a plant that will use as-yet unproven technologies.

“The fast reactors they’re contemplating are far more expensive, far less reliable, prone to failure, and harder to repair [than conventional reactors],” says Cochran.

Leaks have occurred in recent years at reprocessing plants, making safety a concern. Nuclear proliferation is another worry: the separated plutonium might be used to build weapons.

DOE spokesperson Angela Hill says this risk comes from two sources: a nation striving to advance its nuclear weapons capabilities, and a terrorist group that wants to divert the materials to make a nuclear device or dirty bomb. “GNEP aims to address both of these issues by providing incentives to forego enrichment and reprocessing facilities, and by eliminating over time excess stockpiles of civil plutonium,” she says. In addition, she adds, it’s the agency’s hope and expectation “that GNEP will expand the use of nuclear power in the US and around the world by developing new proliferation-resistant technologies to recycle spent nuclear.”

Given the expense and the uncertainties, Cochran and others remain unconvinced that recycling nuclear waste is a path worth pursuing. “Our most promising option is still to store it in a geologic depository,” he says.

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008.