Spent nuclear fuel is anything but waste

Feb 20, 2011

Failure to pursue a program for recycling spent nuclear fuel has put the U.S. far behind other countries and represents a missed opportunity to enhance the nation's energy security and influence other countries, the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Sunday.

Dale Klein, Ph.D., Associate Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Texas System, said largely unfounded concerns and "long-held myths" about the reprocessing of spent fuel have prevented the U.S. from tapping into an extremely valuable resource.

Spent nuclear fuel, which includes some plutonium, often is inaccurately referred to as waste, Klein said.

"It is not waste," he said. "The waste is in our failure to tap into this valuable and abundant domestic source of in a systematic way. That's something we can ill-afford to do."

Klein, who also serves as an associate director at UT Austin's Energy Institute, made his remarks Sunday morning at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) annual meeting, in Washington, D.C.

Compared to other fuels used in the production of electricity, the of uranium is remarkable, Klein said, noting that 95 percent of the energy value in a bundle of spent nuclear fuel rods remains available to be re-used.

"The once-through nuclear fuel cycle, which is our practice in the U.S., is an enormous waste of potential energy," he said.

Critics cite the potential for proliferation as the biggest reason to oppose recycling. But such concerns are largely unfounded, Klein said.

"While it is true that the plutonium in recycled nuclear fuel is fissionable, no country in the world has ever made a nuclear weapon out of low-grade plutonium from recycled high burn-up nuclear fuel," he said. "It just doesn't work for a strategic or a tactical nuclear weapon."

While the U.S. has sat on the sidelines, other countries, including France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia, India, and China have dedicated significant resources toward their reprocessing programs, Klein added.

"U.S. leadership in this area has been lost, and the underlying technological capability and intellectual capital needed to compete internationally have diminished to near irrelevance."

Reprocessing not only recovers significant energy value from spent fuel, it substantially reduces the volume and radiotoxicity of high-level nuclear waste.

Today, U.S. utilities operating nuclear power plants continue to store spent nuclear fuel rods on site in pools of water, before eventually moving them to dry cask storage. And while there is some debate over whether the casks should be located in one central storage site, the practice is widely accepted as safe and secure.

"That's another myth – that we don't know how to safely store nuclear spent fuel," Klein said.

Establishing a program to recycle nuclear fuel will require a public-private partnership that operates outside normal Congressional appropriations and has a charter to manage the fuel over a period of decades, he asserted.

The government's Blue Ribbon Commission, chartered by the Department of Energy, is charged with making recommendations for the safe, long-term management of spent fuel. The 15-member commission is to issue a draft report this summer, with a final report to be completed in January 2012.

"At a time when we are seeking ways to limit carbon emissions from the generation of electricity, the recycling of spent nuclear fuel would appear to be a particularly good fit."

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Quantum_Conundrum
not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
Nah, we couldn't possibly do that. It would make too much sense and be too efficient.

We have to WASTE things. After all, increasing waste is how the U.S. and Europe know they have a strong "economy". The more stuff people buy and throw away the next day, the better the paper "economy" is, therefore, we cannot do anything that is efficient.
Tan0r5
not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
Ironic!

He is out of government and now has the solution to spent nuclear fuel (SNF).

The myths and concerns he mentions have been fed to us ever since the beginning of the Atomic Age.

Atomic technology to power most everything is hidden and not openly explored because of legal and mythical taboos. But because of the accelerating cost of oil energy, industry smells money.

I can see a teaspoon of SNF powering a vehicle for say a year, yet I fear it will be business as usual with small regard for workers' dignity, rights, safety, and environment. Our and most societies operate such.

I fear industry will have free rein to maximize profits without social responsibility. Our representatives financed by industry will support this. Government will be run as usual by appointees favorable to industry.

Our country produces so much so cheaply we forget that everything produced becomes waste. Waste i.e. garbage is the most abundant resource to harvest.
holoman
not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
After 3 years and $ 5 million DOE killed funding.

We had solved many of the issues involved with new
unique approaches never taken.

Hazardous waste and drums of spent radioactive materials would of been able to recapture and use.

Again a short sighted DOE kills potential technology that could of changed the over 2,000 US waste site
conditions.
RogerB34
not rated yet Feb 20, 2011
Obama killed the Savannah recycling project July 2009, then the Yucca Mountain storage project.