Recycling Used Nuclear Fuel Makes Sense

Issue 3 and Volume 4.

By Jacques Besnainou, CEO, Areva North America

For more than three decades, the United States has struggled with the question of the ultimate disposition of nuclear waste. Today, more than 65,000 metric tons of used fuel sits in temporary storage at dozens of plant sites across the country, and we still don’t have a sustainable plan to address this problem. While interim storage is a safe, temporary solution, it’s time we move to a more sustainable approach that includes options so we can transform our nuclear waste into fuel for our clean-air energy future and not leave an undue liability to our children and grandchildren.

Nuclear recycling should be available as an option of an integrated used fuel management strategy. Many countries including Belgium, France, Germany, Japan and Russia have benefited significantly by recycling used fuel. Today, China is considering recycling its used fuel. Areva has successfully and safely operated commercial nuclear fuel recycling facilities for more than three decades and has provided recycled mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel to 40 reactors in five nations.

Developing recycling capacity here in the United States deserves careful consideration. While we will still need to build a deep geological repository for high-level waste under any ultimate disposition scenario, the difficulties of opening such a facility—like the one proposed at Yucca Mountain—make recycling used fuel an increasingly attractive option.

If we continue producing used fuel at the current rate without recycling, the Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that the nation will accumulate 150,000 metric tons of used fuel by 2050. That volume could require the development and licensing of multiple repositories. As DOE’s experience has taught us, developing one repository is a challenge by itself. With recycling, we could optimize our repository space and potentially eliminate or delay the need for additional repositories.

Let’s also not overlook the simple fact that because 96 percent of the content of used fuel is reusable, recycling transforms waste into a valuable resource, increasing our energy security. Recycling technology has evolved over the decades. Using this evolved technology, today’s stockpile of waste could be turned into fuel to power the nation’s entire commercial nuclear fleet for eight years. Used fuel is a domestic energy resource; not extracting its vast energy potential defies logic. We are teaching our children to recycle paper, plastic, glass and metal at a very early age. Why not recycle used nuclear fuel?

Multiple states have actually expressed interest in hosting a recycling facility. They understand the demonstrated benefits of nuclear recycling and they also realize the great economic benefits the construction and operation of such a facility would offer their constituents.

The development of a pilot recycling plant would generate approximately 18,000 direct jobs during construction and 5,000 steady, direct jobs during the 50+ year operation of the plant. The estimated impact on the region would be even larger, to the tune of another 30,000 indirect jobs. Such a project would result in billions of dollars of investment in the region. Such a plant would also meet the highest standards for safety and environmental impact. These kinds of economic incentives would ensure states compete for a recycling facility rather than resist it.

Given the strong case for recycling, we urge the Obama Administration’s Blue Ribbon Commission to include recycling as an option of an integrated used fuel management approach. We also strongly support other measures, such as the formation of a federal corporation to manage used fuel, and construction of interim storage facilities, but these are only part of the solution. Building an interim storage facility as an initial phase of a pilot recycling plant would offer a more complete solution and likely increase public support for nuclear energy because it represents a sustainable used fuel management program.

In light of Fukushima, many have raised questions about the long-term sustainability of nuclear energy. Recycling nuclear fuel addresses many of these concerns: it supports a sustainable fuel cycle, produces a stable waste form, optimizes repository capacity, conserves natural resources and improves energy security. Nuclear recycling is a proven solution, and it’s time it receives the prominence it deserves in the used-fuel policy debate.

Jacques Besnainou is CEO of Areva North America and former head of Areva’s worldwide recycling, used fuel management and decommissioning businesses.
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