Reduce, Reuse and Recycle Should Apply to Used Nuclear Fuel

  • Published on August 4th, 2008

Green recycling symbolEach year, US nuclear power plants prevent 700 million tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. In order to equal that achievement by reducing emissions from personal automobiles, the owners of 96% of the cars on the road today would have to agree to never drive again. Why then, are so many people in the “Environmental Movement” so firm in their opposition to nuclear power?

I used quotes and capital letters to emphasize a point – I recognize that there are individual people concerned about the environment who have a more open mind and are willing to accept the notion that nuclear power has a place at the table in any discussion about our reduced carbon energy future. The officially recognized groups and spokesmen for The Movement seem unimpressed and continue to firmly oppose nuclear development. The remaining arguments end up being cost, waste and nuclear weapons.

Cost is an issue for another day, but the arguments against nuclear power on the matter of waste and relationship to nuclear weapons rest on shaky ground that is beginning to give way. More and more people, including some in responsible leadership positions, are beginning to realize that the tired arguments originated in the 1970s no longer apply. They actually never did.

Line of dry cask fuel storage containersThere are about 55,000 tons of used nuclear fuel resting quietly in cooling pools and dry storage containers on the sites where the fuel was initially used. That may sound like a large amount, but compared to the fact that a single 1000 MWe coal fired power plant can release 45,000 tons of waste to the atmosphere every single day, 55,000 tons of used material after 50 years of nuclear plant operation seems vanishingly small.

You may have noticed that I have carefully avoided calling that slightly used material “waste”. Unlike the gases, ash and soot released to our common atmosphere from coal, oil, gas and biomass fired power plants, the materials left over from nuclear fission reactors are sealed in corrosion resistant cladding and look a lot like they did when they first entered the reactor. Inside those tubes, the material is still mostly solid uranium dioxide – only about 4-5% of the initial material has been converted into other elements.

Essentially all of the remainders from nuclear plant operation could be recovered and reused; some of it would best be used as feedstock for future reactors, other parts should be segregated and used in other material applications for long life batteries, catalysts, and irradiation source materials.

Both of the remaining US presidential candidates seem to be open to the idea that used fuel should be recycled and reused. That is a welcome position since it looks like there will be a number of new reactors under construction soon and they will provide a ready market for the recycled fuel. There will need to be a bipartisan effort to establish rules that do not change with political winds, however, before private industry will invest in the system.

ALL of the used fuel has been carefully stored away in a form that is easy to control and easy to keep segregated. It does not take up much space, does not cost much to watch (compared to the heat value that it provided), and it has never hurt anyone because the people that watch it understand the simple concepts of time, distance and shielding.

As a life time procrastinator, I am actually encouraged by the fact that while we continue to debate and pontificate about the pros and cons of long term disposal, the natural process of radioactive decay continues to make the fuel easier and easier to handle. That process can reduce the cost of recycling, when we finally get around to it.

Perhaps those of us who are advocates of the increased use of nuclear energy as a clean, emissions free source of reliable, low cost power should thank the people who have prevented the used fuel from being too hastily moved or recycled.

Not only do we have a growing volume of seasoned raw materials, but when we finally do get around to building facilities, we can do so using up to date methods and the lessons learned from the first generation facilities in other countries. The democratic process really does favor the patient.

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What Do You Do About the Waste? Recycle and Reuse.

About the Author

loves and respects our common environment, but he has a fatal flaw in the eyes of many environmentalists -- he's a huge fan of atomic energy. Reduce, reuse, and recycle have been watchwords for Rod since his father taught him that raising rabbits is a great way to turn kitchen scraps into fertilizer for backyard fruit trees and vegetable gardens. They built a compost heap together in about 1967, when he was 8 and when Earth Day was a mere gleam in some people's eye. During his professional career, he has served in several assignments on nuclear submarines, including a 40-month tour as the Engineer Officer of the USS Von Steuben. In 1994, he was awarded US patent number 5309592 for the control system for a closed-cycle gas turbine. He founded Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. in 1993, started Atomic Insights in 1995, and began producing the Atomic Show Podcast in 2006. He is currently an active duty officer (O-5) in the US Navy. He looks forward to many interesting discussions.