Nuclear fuel recycling — Underutilized alternative power resource?

Sellafield-nuclear-fuel-recycling-plant, UK. Photo: Wikipedia.

Sellafield nuclear fuel recycling plant, UK. Photo: Wikipedia.

Nuclear-fuel-based electric power generation has a number of major advantages compared to fossil-fuel-based power systems — particularly the fact that there are no carbon-compound greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and also that nuclear fuels are abundant. But there are clear drawbacks to nuclear power, and certainly one of the most notorious is the production of nuclear waste. This waste must be safely contained, and much of it endures for thousands of years.

But recycling of this waste, particularly to produce more nuclear fuel for power generation, is also not only possible, but a technological process already in use, albeit on a relatively small scale. Especially with worldwide growing concern over global climate change related to GHG emissions, the benefits of expanding the production of nuclear fuel (called mixed oxide, or MOX) have recently started to receive more attention. “Recycling is a way to re-use the valuable resources in used nuclear fuel to produce more nuclear-generated electricity” explained Henry B. Spitz, a Nuclear & Radiological Engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati in an op-ed posted 25 September 2014 on the website.

Others articulate a similar case. “As we seek more effective ways to prevent the worst effects of climate change, recycling used nuclear fuel should be high on the list” argues Ivan Maldonado, an associate professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee, in an op-ed in The Tennessean of 21 September 2014.

Maldonado and other proponents of nuclear recycling point out that France, which already generates 75 to 80 percent of its electricity via nuclear power, has a robust nuclear fuel recycling program. Various researchers, politicians, and other observers and questioning why the United States — with an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel in storage — has lagged behind in this area of energy technology.

“If France and other nations can do it, why can’t we?” asks William F. Shughart II research director of the libertarian-leaning, Oakland, California-based Independent Institute, in an October 2014 Forbes article titled “Why Doesn’t U.S. Recycle Nuclear Fuel?

“The nuclear fuel recycling process is straightforward” Shughart explained.

It involves converting spent plutonium and uranium into a “mixed oxide” that can be reused in nuclear power plants to produce more electricity. In France, spent fuel from that country’s 58 nuclear power plants is shipped to a recycling facility at Cap La Hague overlooking the English Channel, where it sits and cools down in demineralized water for three years. Only then is it separated for recycling into mixed-oxide fuel.

The nuclear material that cannot be recycled is embedded in glass logs, where it will remain until France builds a deep-underground repository for unusable waste.

“Compared to electric generating plants fueled by coal and other fossil fuels, nuclear plants have a very light ‘carbon footprint’” says Shughart. “What we ought to do is what other countries do: recycle it. Doing so would provide a huge amount of zero-carbon energy that would help us reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.” According to Maldonado, “Such recycling would reduce the amount of waste requiring permanent disposal by roughly half. It would extend uranium resources.”

Shughart relates that “A major obstacle to nuclear fuel recycling in the United States has been the perception that it’s not cost-effective and that it could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

Those were the reasons President Jimmy Carter gave in 1977 when he prohibited it, preferring instead to bury spent nuclear fuel deep underground. Thirty-seven years later we’re no closer to doing that than we were in 1977.

France, Great Britain and Japan, among other nations, rejected Carter’s solution. Those countries realized that spent nuclear fuel is a valuable asset, not simply waste requiring disposal.

One should note, however, that there are understandable reasons for public and governmental reluctance to fully embrace nuclear power and nuclear fuel recycling. Not only is nuclear material exceptionally toxic, but historic major disasters such as those at Three Mile Island (USA), Chernobyl (Ukraine), and Fukushima (Japan) have demonstrated huge lapses in the safety of both the infrastructural design and the operation of nuclear power facilities (and the energy industry on the whole has not exhibited a comforting safety record in other areas either, as witnessed in recent years by serious problems and accidents with hydraulic fracturing, pipeline operations, and offshore oil drilling).

Bottom line: The technology is available, but the competency of nuclear power developers and producers, within the current social-economic-political environment, to proceed with nuclear fuel recycling at a sufficiently high level of safety, leaves grounds for serious questions and uncertainties. ■