As a long time proponent of the increased use of nuclear energy, I have been involved in thousands of conversations on the topic. (Trust me, I am a boring guest at a cocktail party and a real pain around the water cooler.) Nearly every one of them eventually included the comment that sounds like a question but is usually offered as a trump card aimed at stopping the conversation – “That sounds pretty good, Rod, but what do you do about the waste?”
That is the point where – if the person that I am speaking to has not totally run out of patience or simply cannot wait to get another drink – the conversation gets really interesting. You see, “the waste issue” is the best news that there is about nuclear power. I am not alone in that feeling; many of my long time colleagues like Ted Rockwell, author of The Rickover Effect, How One Man Made a Difference, believe that the byproducts that remain after producing energy with fission are valuable raw materials that should not be considered to be waste products. (See, for example, Why Throw Away a Priceless Resource?)
In our current commercial nuclear power plants, operators remove about one third of the core every 18-24 months, move around the remaining fuel elements and then add fresh fuel bundles to make up for the ones that were removed. The fuel bundles that were removed, despite having produced large quantities of clean, inexpensive heat for 4-6 years, still contain about 95% of their initial potential energy. In the US, we currently store that material in pools or in licensed, tough, highly engineered storage containers.
In other countries – like the UK, Japan, Russia, and France – the removed fuel is recycled to recover the uranium and plutonium that can be put back into the fuel cycle so that they can later be split (fissioned) to release heat. Those components of used nuclear fuel are also the ones that have long half lives, ranging from a few thousand years in the case of some plutonium isotopes to several billion years in the case of the uranium-238 that is a major component of the material.
Currently, the used fuel recycling regimes in operation still consider the lighter parts of used fuel to be a waste material that needs to be put into long term storage, but there are some very bright people who believe that even that material is far to valuable to throw away. NNadir, a diarist on Daily Kos has written extensively on this issue in commentary like Profile of a “Dangerous Nuclear Waste,” Cesium, Part 5.
The US used to have a plan to recycle our fuel as well, but a great deal of marketing and pressure by people that do not like the idea of using plutonium as a source of commercial heat resulted in President Ford issuing a presidential order to temporarily halt nuclear fuel recycling in 1976. President Carter, a man who claimed to be a nuclear engineer, made that ban permanent in the hopes that forcing US companies to avoid fuel recycling would cause others to abandon the very logical idea.
That effort did not work as planned, but the people who had invested large amounts of time and money into building three recycling plants in the US only to have them shut down with the stroke of a pen decided “once bitten, twice shy.” Though President Reagan removed the ban, President Clinton essentially reinstated it and no commercial company has been willing to build a facility and risk having it turn into a white elephant after an election.
The US is now back to considering the idea that used fuel should be recycled, a concept that makes a world of sense. That is especially true 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.
That fuel is a bit more expensive than fuel made from fresh uranium because the recycled material has to be handled a bit differently, but the cost increase is on the order of 20-40% over the cost of fuel made from virgin materials. That is not unusual for a recycled product and like other recycling programs the case needs to be made that there are benefits that may not have been considered in the initial cost analysis.
The great thing about this whole concept is that ALL of the used fuel has been carefully stored away in a form that is easy to control and easy to keep segregated. Unlike some other materials that get mixed into the environment and require a lot of effort to recover, used nuclear fuel is just sitting around in the same location where it was once used just waiting for a recycling facility to be built. 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.
Someday, I will tell you about how to apply the third R (Reduce) in the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra to nuclear fuel, but it is a separate topic that will require some thought about how to explain it without using terms that cause eyeballs to roll.