Recycling a viable option, US commission told

01 September 2010

There could be "significant benefits" in the implementation of reprocessing and recycling technology under a new waste management strategy, industry executives have told the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. 


Today, America is focused on a once-through strategy for managing used nuclear fuel, meaning that uranium-based fuel is used once and then sent for disposal. However, most of the energy potential of the fuel still remains after one cycle, and this material can be recycled.


Testifying to the commission's subcommittee on reactor and fuel cycle technology, Alan Hanson, vice president of technologies and used fuel management at Areva's US subsidiary, noted some of the major benefits of this technology including the ability to reuse material in used fuel which enhances the security of the fuel supply and conserves natural resources. Recycling also reduces by 75% the volume of high-level waste that must be sent to a repository and reduces the toxicity of this waste by a factor of 90%.


He said: "The once-through fuel cycle is not consistent with the resurgence of nuclear energy. More nuclear power means more used fuel." He added, "Our legacy policy was designed decades ago in a different context, where stable or declining outputs of used fuel were anticipated. Policy modernization in the US is crucial to restoring public confidence in nuclear energy and assuring US leadership in the successful global management of used fuel."


Chairman of GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) Jack Fuller told the commission: "The current approach of dealing with waste distorts the public view of nuclear power, dampens our economic decisions for new build, penalizes long-term planning, and throws away the decades-long research on innovative solutions." He said, "We have been tempted in the United States to believe that the back-end of the fuel cycle is too complex to solve. However, on a simple level, it is no more difficult than what we do at home - recycle and reuse waste."


Hanson hinted that the USA might regain a top position in the nuclear fuel cycle if it were to go back to reprocessing and recycling. "Through its deployments internationally, the recycling process invented in the US has benefited from decades of lessons-learned and continuous improvements in technology. A new recycling facility in the US would not simply replicate facilities from France, the UK or Japan, but rather would employ state-of-the-art technologies and processes."


Fuller noted, "GEH strongly believes that recycling is the best policy and technology option for the US to pursue." He added, "The question now is how to develop the policy framework so that this proven option can be brought to the marketplace."


He suggested that the funds needed to licence and demonstrate recycling technology could come from the Nuclear Waste Fund, which nuclear utilities have been contributing to. The fund was set up by Congress in 1982 to pay for the transportation and permanent disposal of commercial nuclear waste.


According to Hanson, the first step to US reprocessing could be the "deployment of current, state-of-the-art recycling technologies in an upgradeable pilot facility." This would "be the first step in an integrated strategy that supports our light water reactor fleet while retaining the flexibility to support continued research and development of advanced separations technology and advanced fuel cycles."


"If recycled, the 60,000 metric tons of US commercial used nuclear fuel represents the energy equivalent of eight years of nuclear fuel supply for today's entire US nuclear reactor fleet," said Hanson. The 104 large reactors in America provide about 20% of electricity.


In the commission's post-Yucca Mountain project context, Hanson noted, "High-level waste (HLW) volume reduction is a crucial benefit of recycling as it allows maximum use of a geologic repository, which is a rare and precious asset. When a HLW repository eventually opens in the US, one would want to make optimal use of every cubic unit of emplacement." He added, "Recycling can significantly delay and potentially eliminate any requirement for additional repositories."


With regards to proliferation risks, he said, "If diversion or theft of plutonium can be prevented by extensive national and international safeguards and physical protection, then there remains only one reason for the US to forego recycling and that is to avoid setting an example that might be followed by the rest of the world." He noted, "This is the ostensible reason why the US turned its back on recycling three decades ago. But that US policy did not prevent Britain, France, Japan or Russia from building domestic recycling facilities, nor will it prevent China or India from following suit."


"Now is the time to move forward decisively and to restore public credibility in used fuel management," Hanson told the commission.


The Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future was formed "to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the Nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste."


Researched and written

by World Nuclear News