Is U.S. Reprocessing Worth the Risk?

By Fetter, Steve; Hippel, Frank N. von | Arms Control Today, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Is U.S. Reprocessing Worth the Risk?


Fetter, Steve, Hippel, Frank N. von, Arms Control Today


Nearly three decades ago, the United States swore off the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel because it cost too much and put separated plutonium into circulation. Now, some in Congress want to launch a massive program to reprocess the spent fuel that has accumulated at U.S. power plants.

In May, the House endorsed report language calling on the Department of Energy to prepare "an integrated spent fuel recycling plan for implementation beginning in fiscal year 2007, including... reprocessing, preparation of mixed oxide fuel, vitrification of high level waste products, and temporary process storage."1

Supporters, led by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, say the need is imminent. They point out that, in the absence of reprocessing, the amount of spent fuel discharged by U.S. power reactors will soon exceed the legislated storage capacity of the repository being built under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Moreover, Hobson has been persuaded that the Energy Department has developed "new reprocessing technologies that have the potential to minimize the...streams of radioactive waste products and also eliminate the presence of separated plutonium."2

In fact, reprocessing does not eliminate the need for a repository, and there is no urgent need for additional repository capacity. Further, the new reprocessing technologies being examined by the Energy Department, if adopted, would make huge additional quantities of plutonium accessible for diversion by terrorist groups and would undercut the ability of the United States to oppose the spread of plutonium-separation technology to additional countries. Reprocessing also would be very expensive, increasing the costs of nuclear power in the United States by billions of dollars a year. Yet, the House vote took place without hearings being held. Given the high stakes involved, Congress owes the American people the opportunity for an open and informed debate on the issues involved.

Evolution of U.S. Spent Fuel Disposal Policy

Reprocessing is the generic term for the chemical processing of spent nuclear fuel. The method currently used is the PUREX (plutonium-uranium extraction) process, which was originally developed by the United States in the early 1950s to separate plutonium for nuclear weapons. The spent fuel assemblies are chopped into pieces, the fuel is dissolved in nitric acid, and organic solvents are used to separate the plutonium and uranium from the fission products (such as cesium-137 and strontium-90) and minor transuranic elements (neptunium, americium, and curium). The plutonium and uranium are then separated from each other and purified for use in fresh reactor fuel. The fission products and minor transuranics are mixed into glass and stored in a surface facility pending the availability of an underground repository.

Commercial reprocessing programs originated in the 1960s and 1970s when power reactor operators worldwide expected that plutonium would be needed to make start-up fuel for plutonium breeder reactors. These reactors would then fuel themselves and other reactors with the plutonium that reactors produce by transmuting the abundant non-chain-reacting uranium-238 isotope. It was believed that production of nuclear energy based on the much less abundant chain-reacting uranium-235 isotope would increase so rapidly that the world's high-grade uranium ores would quickly be depleted, making a transition to the more uranium-efficient breeder reactors economical.

This expectation, however, was wrong, as U.S. and world nuclear capacity reached a plateau at one-tenth the level that had been projected for the year 2000, huge deposits of high-grade uranium ore were discovered in Australia and Canada, and both breeder reactors and reprocessing were found to be much more costly than had been expected.

Before these errors were generally recognized, reconsideration of U. …

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