December 28, 2007
By Jack Spencer
What if the government allowed you to burn only 25 percent of
every tank of gas? Or if Washington made you pour half of every
gallon of milk down the drain?
What if lawmakers forced us to bury 95 percent of our energy
That is exactly what Washington does when it comes to safe,
affordable and CO2-free nuclear energy. Indeed, 95 percent of the
used fuel from America's 104 power reactors, which provide about 20
percent of the nation's electricity, could be recycled for future
To create power, reactor fuel must contain 3-5 percent burnable
uranium. Once the burnable uranium falls below that level, the fuel
must be replaced. But this "spent" fuel generally retains about 95
percent of the uranium it started with, and that uranium can be
Over the past four decades, America's reactors have produced
about 56,000 tons of used fuel. That "waste" contains roughly
enough energy to power every U.S. household for 12 years. And it's
just sitting there, piling up at power plant storage facilities.
Talk about waste!
The sad thing is, the United States developed the technology to
recapture that energy decades ago, then barred its commercial use
in 1977. We have practiced a virtual moratorium ever since.
Other countries have not taken such a backward approach to
nuclear power. France, whose 59 reactors generate 80 percent of its
electricity, has safely recycled nuclear fuel for decades. They
turned to nuclear power in the 1970s to limit their dependence on
foreign energy. And, from the beginning, they made recycling used
fuel central to their program.
Upon its removal from French reactors, used fuel is packed in
containers and safely shipped via train and road to a facility in
La Hague. There, the energy producing uranium and plutonium are
removed and separated from the other waste and made into new fuel
that can be used again. The entire process adds about 6 percent in
costs for the French.
Anti-nuclear fear mongering has proved baseless. The French have
recycled fuel like this for 30 years without incident: no terrorist
attack, no bad guys stealing uranium, no contribution toward
nuclear weapons proliferaton, and o accidental explosions.
France meets all of its recycling needs with one facility.
Indeed, domestic French reprocessing only takes about half of La
Hague's capacity. The other half is used to recycle other
countries' spent nuclear fuel.
Since beginning operations, France's La Hague plant has safely
processed over 23,000 tones of used fuel--enough to power France
for fourteen years.
Their success has sparked plenty of interest abroad. The French
company AREVA has already helped Japan with its reprocessing
facility and is currently looking at the feasibility of building a
similar plant in China.
The British, Japanese, Indians, and Russians all engage in some
level of reprocessing.
Of course, there is still waste involved. But recycling produces
much lower volumes of highly radioactive waste, and the French deal
with it effectively--placing some waste in short-term, interim
storage or preparing the rest for long-term storage in their
version of Yucca Mountain.
All is not perfect in France. They are still working to open a
permanent geologic storage facility. But the critical issue is that
they have an organization to handle used nuclear fuel that allows
their program to advance without being held hostage to the politics
of geologic storage.
If the United States is serious about reducing CO2 and energy
dependence, it must get serious about nuclear power and begin
recycling used nuclear fuel.
A viable reprocessing capability not only would give the United
States a valuable energy resource, it would reduce the amount of
material going to Yucca Mountain. The U.S. has already produced
enough waste to nearly fill Yucca's legal limit of 70,000 metric
tons--subsequent studies estimate that its actual capacity is about
double that amount and some believe that it is even greater.
It would also put the United States back on the map as a leader
in commercial nuclear technology, which today it is not.
Nuclear fuel reprocessing is a safe activity that should be part
of America's nuclear energy program. It can be affordable and is
technologically feasible. The French are proving that on a daily
basis. The question is: Why can't oui?
Jack Spencer is a
research fellow in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy
First appeared in FoxNews.com
What if the government allowed you to burn only 25 percent of every tank of gas? Or if Washington made you pour half of every gallon of milk down the drain?
Director, Roe Institute
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