In March Energy Secretary Seven Chu said he would shut down the nuclear waste strorage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, casting a pall over hopes for a resurgent nuclear power industry. The Yucca Mountain project came about from President Jimmy Carter’s decision not to permit reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel in an effort to prevent nuclear proliferation. The alternative was a long term nuclear waste storage facility that eventually was sited and developed at Yucca Mountain. That was taken off the table by Chu but it is doubtful any long term storage site can ever meet the absurdly stringent regulatory requirements which require absolute guarantees of radiation safety a million years out. So thousands of spent fuel rods continue to sit near nuclear power plants bathed in pools of water.
Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel separates the uranium fuel from fission byproducts for reuse. One of these byproducts is long half-life plutonium (27,000 years) which can be recovered and used again as fuel or as a nuclear explosive. The latter is the problem. Carter’s concern wasn’t so much founded in the fear of proliferation from the US (strict US regulatory controls make that nearly impossible), he wanted to set an example for the rest of the world would follow. They didn’t. France, Russia and Japan now all reprocess their spent fuel. It makes sense to them as it should for us.
Only a small percentage of the uranium is burned up in the “once through fuel cycle,” a waste of ever more precious uranium resources. With reprocessing, the life of the uranium can be extended and the plutonium blended back in as a fuel itself. The plutonium generated in the normal fuel cycle gets overcooked anyway and is generally unusable for weapons. It becomes contaminated with Pu 240 (a byproduct of neutron bombardment of normal plutonium from uranium fission) by the time the fuel rods are spent and need replacement. The real threat of proliferation now comes not from the US but from other nations, some of whom are terrorist friendly, that have nuclear programs of their own.
Unfortunately Chu, aside from closing Yucca Mountain, also closed the door on reprocessing. Chu also told lawmakers that the United States would not consider reversing a 30-year-old policy against reprocessing spent nuclear fuel
In the age of limiting carbon emissions, nuclear power offers the only low cost method of electric generation. France has gone that route and generates 80% of its power from nuclear plants. Nuclear electricity is cheap enough there to heat homes economically in the winter with no carbon emissions. China wants to have 100 nuclear reactors in operation or under construction by 2020 according to Westinghouse. This will nearly close the gap with the 104 nukes the US currently has in operation.
In the meantime we are subsidizing wind and solar which are far more expensive and worse, intermittent sources of electricity that can't satisfy electrical demand 24/7. Electricity can’t be stored economically other than pumped water storage. There are only 31 of these sites in the US and their capacity is spoken for. It is doubtful any more will be built in the near future. And there are times when there is no sunshine and no wind over vast expanses of the US as documented in a previous post. The result will be an expensive, unreliable energy source and the potential for massive blackouts.