Nuclear power, for some, is a vast, emissions-free energy source powering a post-fossil-fuel future that doesn’t cook our planet. For others, it is enough to point at Chernobyl, the vast contaminated wasteland surrounding Fukushima, and thousands of spent fuel rods in ominous, temporary storage pools to suggest a fuel not safe to handle for 240,000 years after its use is an unacceptable way to run our lightbulbs and appliances.
For much of the world, however, shutting down nuclear power will not be an economic option (or even desirable one) for quite some time. The 400 or so reactors worldwide—and a spate of new ones under construction and in the proposal stage—are going to dump their fuel somewhere. Or will they?
There are new nuclear fuel reprocessing initiatives (often called advanced nuclear fuel cycles) under development around the world that might take a big chunk of that radioactive material and turn it into more energy. The Department of Energy, for one, is launching its Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative and conducting an R&D program with the nuclear industry that will look into different ways to get more power out of spent nuclear fuel.
GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy has also designed an Advanced Recycling Center (ARC) to reprocess the uranium that is typically discarded during enrichment. It claims its PRISM reactors will extract more than 100 times more energy from uranium than today’s "once-through" fuel cycle, turning a metric ton of used nuclear fuel into a year’s worth of electricity for more 600,000 U.S. homes (and displacing 3 million metric tons of coal). A large 1,000 MW nuclear plant using spent fuel, according to the company, could pump out enough used fuel to power 10 million average U.S. households for a year.
Reprocessing techniques build on technology developed by the French and others who, during the last 30 years, have managed to recycle a good portion of the 90,000 tons of commercial fuel generated during the last few decades (Japan, India, Russia, and the U.K. are also in the business). The U.S., worried about proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and other risks, shut down its recycling efforts in the 1970s.
But it looks like we may be getting back into it. The U.S.'s proposed nuclear waste dump, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain Repository, is hopelessly behind schedule and returns as a political zombie in every presidential election. Our current approach—using temporary holding ponds filled with water to keep the fuel cool—is risky, expensive, and no one’s idea of a good solution.
"It’s troubling to think that we can protect forever a continuously increasing inventory of spent nuclear fuel, which contains plutonium," says Dana Christensen, associate laboratory director for energy and engineering sciences at the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Rather, if we decide we are going to employ recycling—extracting the plutonium and then reformulating it into a fuel that goes into a reactor for transmuting—we begin down the path of making substantial reductions in the volume and availability of plutonium. This approach would produce a corresponding reduction in the risk of nuclear arms proliferation."
Somehow, we need to deal with thousands tons of spent fuel lying around the world today. The DOE hints at its view of the solution in one of its reports (PDF): We use less than 1% of the energy available in mined uranium in our plants, the waste must be contained for hundreds of thousands of years, and a "final disposal" solution has been politically difficult in all industrialized countries.
If reprocessing isn’t one answer, we better find another one fast.