Since the early 1970s, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars to find a suitable site for a geologic repository to hold high-level radioactive waste. It’s time to consider a new approach that would substantially reduce the amount of nuclear waste yet increase the financial rewards for a state willing to host the facility.
Reducing the amount of nuclear waste might seem impossible, but it’s not. Often mistaken for nuclear waste, spent fuel that’s being stored at nuclear power plants around the country contains plutonium and other valuable nuclear materials that can be chemically recovered to produce new fuel for use in reactors to generate more electricity. Such reprocessing was done in the U.S. until it was discontinued for economic reasons during the Ford administration and then banned by President Jimmy Carter because he contended it could lead to the spread of nuclear weapons.
Several European countries continued reprocessing their spent fuel — and have demonstrated that it can be done proficiently under international safeguards. There have been advances in reprocessing technology that greatly reduce the risk of plutonium diversion.
With concern over climate change, increasing the production of carbon-free electricity by reprocessing would be in everyone’s interest. Reprocessing would substantially reduce the amount of high-level waste that cannot be recycled and would need to be disposed of in a geologic repository. Since there is a limit on the amount of waste that a repository can hold, reducing the stocks of spent fuel at nuclear plants is essential.
In addition to spent fuel, a geologic repository — like the one that was being developed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada until the current administration suspended work on it — would need to hold high-level waste from both the commercial production of electricity and the military program. Currently, there are about 100 million gallons of high-level waste in tanks at the Hanford Site in Washington state and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and less than 1 million gallons here at the Idaho National Laboratory.
Those who maintain that a reprocessing facility would be too costly ignore that more than $30 billion, including interest, has been paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund since 1982. Some of these funds could be earmarked for construction of a reprocessing facility.
Such a facility, if situated near an interim storage site for spent fuel, would offer the sort of financial incentives to convince a state government and local communities to host it. There would be thousands of well-paid construction jobs and permanent jobs for plant operators as well as revenue.
Nuclear reprocessing isn’t a problem. It’s part of the solution. Its revival could help break the political stalemate over nuclear waste disposal.
Roger Mayes is a retired scientist and manager from the Idaho National Laboratory with advanced degrees in environmental and radiological sciences. He is a past chair and current board member of the Idaho Section of the American Nuclear Society.