In response to growing concerns in the United States about proliferation of nuclear weapons, President Carter issued an executive order in 1977, suspending indefinitely the commercial reprocessing of used fuel removed from nuclear reactors. With the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, disposal of this spent fuel in repositories carved out of underground geological formations became U.S. national policy.
Although there have been amendments to the 1982 act, the initial date on which the U.S. Department of Energy would accept spent fuel for disposal--January 31, 1998--has never been changed. That date has come and gone, of course, but DOE has yet to accept its first shipment of spent fuel. Profound political problems at all potential nuclear waste storage sites since 1982, along with technical and political problems at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada since 1987, have effectively prevented DOE from meeting its schedule. (1)
This failure of the federal government to come even close to meeting its schedule, combined with fears of energy shortages, is taken by some to mean that reprocessing spent fuel should once again be considered an option. (2) Such a conclusion, however, ignores studies showing that reprocessing would not relieve nuclear waste disposal problems nor improve the economics of nuclear power.
Indeed, many of the major reasons for President Carter's decision to suspend reprocessing are as sound today as they ever were, and the circumstances supporting that decision are unlikely to change during the next several decades.
Costs and Benefits
In 1977, a group sponsored by the Ford Foundation--the Nuclear Energy Policy Study Group--released a report called "Nuclear Power Issues and Choices," which was the basis of President Carter's decision to suspend the reprocessing of spent fuel. (3)
The Nuclear Energy Policy Study Group concluded that despite nuclear power's many problems, the light-water reactor would and should be a major source of electric power in the future. The group also concluded that the breeder reactor would be too expensive to compete in the market and that stockpiling plutonium for the breeder was therefore unnecessary.
Furthermore, recycling of plutonium offered no significant cost advantages for nuclear waste disposal. Under these circumstances, which have nor changed since then, there is no economic incentive to reprocess spent fuel.
Estimates of the future availability and cost of uranium are central factors to deciding whether the United States should reprocess plutonium or build breeder reactors. Until the cost of uranium ore rises significantly, it is cheaper to produce low-enriched uranium from new ore than to separate plutonium from spent fuel. The study also noted that if uranium followed the example of other minerals, the higher costs accompanying increased demand would lead to profitable ways to exploit lower grade sources. This would result in much larger supplies of uranium than have been previously forecast.
Because of a great slowdown in new nuclear power plant construction activities during the 1980s, anticipated demand for uranium did not materialize, but new uranium ores of higher quality were discovered. As a result, during the past two decades, there has been no shortage of uranium and no increase in cost. In fact, there is such an oversupply of uranium that the cost today--about $4.50 per kilogram ($10 per pound)--is less than one tenth of the cost of uranium in inflation-adjusted dollars at the time of President Carter's decision. It is difficult to identify any other basic material whose real cost has declined so precipitously. At present, many uranium mines have closed because they cannot compete at current prices, and there is a worldwide excess capacity of enrichment facilities to produce low-enriched uranium for standard light water reactors. In short, a genuine market for plutonium fuel is nonexistent. …