Nuclear fuel recycling: a refresher on the virtue of the Three Rs

A recent report from MIT, apparently intended to influence the U.S. president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on nuclear energy, recommends yet another round of inquiry into whether used nuclear fuel is a waste or a resource. Though the report also contains recommendations that are actually useful, this one is guaranteed to cause more than a few eyeballs to roll skyward. Used fuel is obviously a resource, because it can be recycled. France does it today. The MIT study therefore recommends a rather useless exercise in semantics. What will that accomplish?

The study authors rationalize their recommendation by explaining that, contrary to conventional belief, the world won’t run out of uranium any time soon. The problem with that is, nobody who knows anything about uranium has ever said we will soon run out of uranium. Proponents of nuclear fuel recycling advocate it because it is simply the right thing to do.

Imagine using that argument to rationalize ending other kinds of recycling. As Dave Jones, Areva’s new VP of used fuel management, points out:

Are we recycling glass because there is a shortage of natural resources for making new glass? No. Are we recycling paper because it is cheaper? No.

Recycling stretches natural resources and is almost always a better policy than continuing to consume new resources. In the case of nuclear fuel, the current additional cost of recycled fuel still represents a very small percentage of the total cost of nuclear power. And that is also small relative to the cost of other kinds of power.

If the U.S. administration follows the MIT report’s advice, it will signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. has decided to let other countries design the international nuclear landscape. That would jeopardize a number of crucial initiatives.

Chief among these is fuel leasing. This kind of arrangement has been proposed as a further institutional barrier to nuclear weapons proliferation. From the dawn of the commercial nuclear age, some people have worried that the plutonium in used fuel is a proliferation risk. As used fuel inventories grow, these people worry that potential proliferators have more plutonium to work with.

(The suitability of reactor-grade plutonium for weapons is the subject of a long-standing debate. I’ll take that up in subsequent posts; stay tuned.)

Fuel leasing aims to minimize that amount of plutonium by keeping the used fuel inventories in non-weapons countries small. Non-weapons countries outnumber the weapons states by 16 to 1.

Throughout the duration of a fuel leasing arrangement, the lessor would own the fuel. Ownership means the lessor is also responsible for managing the used fuel that comes out of the reactor.

This means the used fuel goes back to the original country, or to a third country, for recycling or storage. The lessee receives the benefits of nuclear energy—clean, cheap, bulk electricity—without the bother of having to manage an inventory of used fuel. The lessor gets paid for its service. And, because the lessor would most likely be an NPT weapons state, the world benefits by breathing easier with the extra level of security.

No other power generation type could offer this kind of arrangement. Natural gas suppliers, for example, could not lease natural gas to generating companies and then take back the by-product of generation, i.e., the millions of tons of carbon dioxide. This would add such prohibitive costs that gas-fired generation would become unprofitable in almost all circumstances.

Of course, a lessor could only offer a nuclear fuel leasing arrangement if it were really able to manage a relatively large inventory of used fuel.

This is just another consideration that underlines how unhinged the MIT recommendation is from reality. There is currently no agreed-on central used-fuel storage repository in the U.S.: the administration has abandoned Yucca Mountain. American nuclear utilities, which for decades have been paying for a final storage site, must continue to keep their used fuel on site. They will eventually have to get permission from the federal regulator to continue doing so.

Fuel leasing would significantly expand the amount of used fuel in the U.S. Where would it be stored? Not at American utility sites: they are already worried their own space will run out.

The logical answer is to store it at an “interim” site, i.e., somewhere other than Yucca Mountain. No such site exists.

The U.S. is currently asking countries seeking to start nuclear programs to voluntarily refrain from “reprocessing,” i.e., recycling, used fuel. Fuel leasing would promise an actual payoff for that voluntary act from the lessee’s viewpoint, and control over reactor plutonium from the lessor’s.

Can the U.S. today, with a straight face, really offer fuel leasing to any other country? All that country needs to do is skim media releases on Yucca Mountain to see what a non-starter that repository is.

For an American offer of fuel leasing to be credible, the only alternative is for the U.S. to develop an interim storage site.

And the only way to make that politically palatable is to recycle used fuel.

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9 years ago

There’s a lot of flap about the fact the American utilities are suing the government. The idea promulgated by those against nuclear is that is still ANOTHER taxpayer bailout or whatever. What the utilities and plant owners want is…their own money back. They sent billions to the government, I believe one mil per kWh of nuclear generation, to fund the government taking the used fuel. This was a contract: you send the government the money and the government takes care of the fuel cycle. Then the government said..nope, we’re closing Yucca Mountain, we have no plans to reprocess, too bad. The government was then in breach of contract, and the plant owners were practically required (by their duty to their shareholders) to sue anyone in breach of contract for so much money.

9 years ago

Meredith, excellent point. The noise about the lawsuits has the potential to reinforce the general belief that nuclear “waste” is an unsolvable problem. But it also has the potential to introduce a new quality to the debate over used fuel.

How that debate develops really depends on who gets to frame it. If it’s framed by the usual anti-nuke propagandists, then Yucca will continue to be blocked and there will be expensive lawsuits into the foreseeable future and no resolution.

But if more rational voices frame the debate, then Yucca might be more intelligently revisited. I believe this could happen if the proponents of recycling stepped up and put their case. I know they’re doing this already. I just hope they don’t get discouraged and lay off.