Nuclear fuel reprocessing in the U.S.: it’s a guessing game

One of the central components of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) is the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. How much would that cost? According to the Boston Consulting Group, six percent more than it would cost to store spent fuel directly in Yucca Mountain. The Kennedy School of Government says it would be twice as much as direct storage.

The U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO) looked at the question in detail and told the U.S. Senate committee on energy and natural resources that it cannot see any scenarios in which the cost of reprocessing would ever be less than that of storage. So did Matthew Bunn of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He too told the committee that reprocessing would be much more expensive. “No policy-maker should make decisions about reprocessing based on an expectation that the costs will be similar to those projected in the Boston Consulting Group report.”

Fair enough. But as far as I can see, none of these studies considered carbon or emission abatement costs. Emission costs exist in the U.S. only in the area covered by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. These haven’t yet been quantified, so we don’t know how they would affect nuclear energy in a competitive market. But they would certainly affect general cost and price scenarios of power generation if emission limits were imposed across the U.S. Half America’s power comes from burning coal.

Environmental policy entrepreneurs have been launching legal challenges against U.S. coal-fired power generators, because of greenhouse gas emissions. Some of these challenges are based the tort doctrine of public nuisance. The Boston College Environmental Law Review warned in 2006 that there is more substance to these challenges than is indicated in the innocuous phrase “public nuisance.” Should one of them succeed, an important precedent will have been set, to put it mildly. This would change all the cost scenarios mentioned.

Reservations toward GNEP aren’t limited to cost, of course. Matthew Bunn’s testimony focused more on the proliferation implications of reprocessing. He suggested that directly storing spent reactor fuel poses far lower proliferation risks than reprocessing it.

This makes me wonder two things. First, does all public policy advice come from Massachusetts? And second, has anyone considered DUPIC, which could prove to be an excellent alternative to the fast burner reactors currently envisioned under GNEP? Unlike the GNEP’s high capacity fast burner, CANDU operating costs are well known. Some might even argue that they are relatively low. As a ratepayer and consumer of CANDU power, I can personally vouch for that.

DUPIC is a direct solution to spent fuel pile-up at reactor sites. Its own spent fuel could go into a permanent repository (after a cooling period: the heat load would be higher than that of spent fuel from light water reactors). And because it doesn’t involve UREX + or pyroprocessing or any of the separation entailed in other GNEP reprocessing alternatives, wouldn’t it pose the same level of proliferation risk as Yucca Mountain? As Matthew Bunn points out, if this were the only proliferation risk facing the world, we should all celebrate.

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