April 26, 2013
Dr. Michael Cappello
Currently on average, each of the 104 nuclear power facilities in the United States store about 20 tons of spent fuel at the site on dry ground in large casks. This is a temporary means of handling the radioactive waste, but the U.S. should consider other options that can offer long-term solutions. The proposed solution to our nuclear waste pileup is now postponed leaving the Federal government without a feasible response. An alternative, which has already been reintroduced, is the system of reprocessing. I will present an argument to support and also a fair counterargument.
Reprocessing was considered during a time in which the belief was adopted that the supply uranium was finite giving a need to make more use of the fuel produced. The Department of Energy proposed reprocessing as a means of reusing spent fuel. Fission of uranium produces the energy needed to fuel the reactor and what remains afterward is plutonium. Uranium can be converted into a chain reaction from plutonium that releases fission energy, the energy can be extracted from uranium could be multiplied up to 100x. The recycling of the essential element can produce more energy than only the once through cycle currently adopted by the United States (Von Hippel, Plutonium and Reprocessing of Spent Nuclear Fuel, 2001). The proposition of constructing breeder nuclear plants domestically was considered, however with the abundance of uranium to be mined the plan was abandoned. The risks associated with reprocessing spent nuclear fuel centers around the possibility of separated plutonium becoming used for nuclear weapons. (Squassoni, 2008) The U.S. for two reasons initiated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act; the first was that until 1971, the United States was the dominant supplier of low-enriched uranium in the fuel market in addition to supplying reactors in the industrialized western world. The motivation behind the treaty was for other nuclear capable countries to remain dependent on the exportation of unclassified diffusion technology that burdened the need for electricity while here in the U.S., the access to more competitive but classified method of technology. Secondly, for the nuclear efficient countries to join an alliance against allowing the separation of plutonium material that may be used for weapons of mass destruction.
The fear is that theft will play a major role in these wastes will be used as nuclear bombs by terrorists (Bunn, 2009). Security measures do not need to be implied, the threat to human health is apparent when dealing with highly toxic elements. The casks storing spent fuel can only be stored under strict surveillance and monitoring. Securing of these casks should be exercised to avoid the probability of theft, which in any case is extremely dangerous if even possible. Besides theft, distribution for profit by nuclear capable countries to unstable regimes that have proven as a global threat is also cited within.
In response to the United States’ failure to meet contractual supplies of LUE, a few European countries instead invested in an enrichment program that no longer would depend on exports from the U.S. Successfully, France was first to operate a reprocessing plant, which has reduced their need for high volume storage locations. In fact, France accepts imported spent fuel from other countries such as Japan and Germany, primarily for reprocessing. This gave them an economic advantage because Japan and Germany could not resolve their issues with storing spent fuel than to otherwise shut down its reactors. Therefore, in an effort to maintain energy demands, they concluded that exporting their spent fuel for reprocessing was more convenient although uneconomical means to dispose of excess nuclear wastes (Von Hippel, RETHINKING Nuclear Fuel Recycling, 2008).
The French have developed a process in which separation of uranium and…