There have been moves in favour of reprocessing and recycling used nuclear fuel on three continents.
With the USA's entire high-level waste management policy under review, the possibility exists that it may look to reprocessing as a way to reduce the volume of its used nuclear fuel stocks.
The former Yucca Mountain project was set with a capacity of 63,000 tonnes of civil material although more would inevitably be produced and the facility could have held far more still. While current volumes would take up the area of a football pitch to a height of 10 metres, a policy of central storage followed by reprocessing would reduce this to take up just "one end zone" at the same height, according to GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy CEO Jack Fuller.
Speaking to Bloomberg, Fuller said the USA "ought to go to recycling." The industry chief said he would soon tell secretary of energy Stephen Chu, "Don't go to reprocessing, go straight to recycling." The difference being an intermediate step where separated plutonium is stored - a proliferation risk the USA would like to avoid and one ruled out by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.
The USA's decision not to separate plutonium was meant to inspire other countries and reduce the risk of civil plutonium being diverted for military or non-state use. However, France and the UK continued to reprocess and Japan should soon join them, although using a method where plutonium is never separated from recovered uranium. All these materials are held under safeguards administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Japan is operating in line with its bilateral cooperation agreement with America and the same kind of reprocessing could be replicated in South Korea if that country is successful in renegotiating its US cooperation deal.
A report in the Korea Times said that an agreement to negotiate was made during the Nuclear Security Summit this week in Washington DC. The current deal forbidding reprocessing will expire in 2014 and South Korea would like to conclude talks by 2012. The country wants reprocessing in order to reduce the amount of uranium it imports, decrease the volume of waste for permanent storage and, in the short term, ease congestion in temporary used fuel stores which could reach capacity by 2016.
Nuclear power provides about 40% of South Korean electricity, while all of the 3800 tonnes uranium required for this is imported. Recycling uranium from used fuel would reduce import requirements by about one third.
Meanwhile, Ukraine, which also uses a large proportion of nuclear energy, may move towards reprocessing. Interfax reported that talks in Washington resulted in an agreement to build "an experimental facility to recycle spent nuclear fuel in Kharkiv." No details were given, but fuel and energy minister Yuriy Boiko said this would mean the import of advanced technology to Ukraine.
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News