Europe's largest nuclear reprocessing plant, COGEMA La Hague, sits on a flat hill in the middle of a Normandy peninsula, surrounded by farms and a number of pretty beaches. Since 1966, the plant has done the dirty work of recycling spent fuel rods from French nuclear reactors. In the meantime it also takes contract work from other countries — Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands — to relieve them of the burden of running similar plants on their own soil.
Europe recycles nuclear fuel; America doesn't. It would sound like a cliché about wasteful Americans if nuclear recycling weren't such a nasty business.
Nasty but alluring: A typical fuel rod has only released about 10 percent of its energy by the time it's considered "spent," but it remains too hot to be stored in, say, an underground salt mine. Right now, American nuclear plants keep their spent rods on-site in concrete "dry storage" casks, where they radiate quietly until the U.S. government either a) figures out how to reprocess them safely, or b) thinks of a more permanent place to keep them — since the Obama administration recently nixed the Yucca Mountain plan.
"Waste is just too gross of a term for it," said Sherrell Greene, director of Nuclear Technology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, according to Forbes magazine. Greene wants to find new ways to recycle nuclear fuel. "I'm trying to get to the 90 percent of the fuel in that rod."
The irony is that American scientists first developed a recycling process at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project. But Washington has discouraged fuel rod recycling since the '70s because a byproduct of the process, plutonium-235, is both useful to build weapons and relatively easy to steal.
Reprocessing plants in the U.K. and Russia solve the plutonium problem by storing and guarding it — Scientific Americanestimates ever-growing Russian and British stockpiles large enough to make 15,000 nuclear bombs. The plant at La Hague has found a way to reuse some of its plutonium and bind the rest of it to highly radioactive waste from the reactor, making it, in effect, lethal to steal. Germany and other countries in Europe deal with their nuclear waste problem simply by sending it to France.
But Greene says his lab at Oak Ridge has had a breakthrough: They've figured out how to recycle used fuel without isolating plutonium-235. A recycled fuel pellet produced by his lab "contains uranium, neptunium and plutonium," he told journalists at a recent press junket, "while never having created pure plutonium in the process."
Reprocessing would still be hugely expensive, because it requires special reactors. And, of course, it pollutes: Greenpeace accuses COGEMA La Hague of releasing a million liters of radioactive water into the ocean every year, and some researchers have said the incidence of leukemia is higher among children whose mothers went to those Normandy beaches, or ate the local shellfish, than among children elsewhere in France.
The new process, if anything, would be dirtier, since it would leave behind highly radioactive nuclear waste; but the waste would also degrade faster than unprocessed fuel rods — in dozens of years, according to Greene, rather than tens of thousands.
But not everyone thinks it would be safer.
"Some claim that new reprocessing technologies that would leave the plutonium blended with other elements, such as neptunium, would result in a mixture that would be too radioactive to steal," writes Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, on the UCS Web site. "This is incorrect; neither neptunium nor the other elements under consideration are radioactive enough to preclude theft." Furthermore, "Most of these other elements are also weapon-usable."
For now, it's probably safer to leave old American fuel rods where they are, in concrete casks, and the Obama administration, in late June, quietly nixed a Bush-era step toward an American nuclear reprocessing plant. The Bush plan was just an environmental study, but it belonged to a wider initiative called GNEP, the Global Nuclear Energy Project, to close the nuclear fuel cycle. The Department of Energy now says it "is no longer pursuing domestic commercial reprocessing."
Sure. Many presidents from now, though, the spent rods will still be piling up.
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