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Press Releases :: June 17, 2009

Committee Discusses Nuclear Waste Recycling Risks and Benefits, and Status of R&D

(Washington, DC)—Today, the House Committee on Science and Technology held a hearing to explore the status of nuclear waste recycling and to discuss the ongoing and needed research, development and demonstration activities in the federal government, private sector and around the globe. Members and Witnesses also discussed the safety, environmental, security and economic issues related to the adoption of a nuclear waste reprocessing strategy.

“I believe everything has to be on the table when it comes to meeting our growing need for energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  I believe nuclear power is part of the solution to the daunting challenge of climate change, and I also recognize that our 104 operating reactors provide very reliable baseload power,” said Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). “To me, the best reason to consider reprocessing is that an expansion of nuclear power may make the once-through fuel cycle inadequate for maintaining our nuclear power supply as uranium resources eventually become scarce.”

The United States currently has 104 commercial nuclear power reactors licensed to operate in thirty-one states, which provide about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. Nuclear energy provides a reliable baseload of electrical power, without the greenhouse gas emissions associated with other sources of electricity, such as fossil fuels. Many experts believe it would be difficult, if not impossible, to meet the nation’s growing need for energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions without using nuclear energy. 
 
One of the main drawbacks of nuclear energy is the creation of nuclear waste. The approximate 58,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel already existing at these reactor sites continues to accumulate at a rate of 2,000 metric tons per year. Generally, the U.S. has pursued a policy to store nuclear waste in a geologic repository while supporting some R&D on recycling technologies.  
 
U.S. nuclear waste policy since the 1970s has been that nuclear fuel is used once in a reactor and then permanently disposed of in long-term storage, referred to as the “once through” fuel cycle. Congress designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the nation’s sole candidate site for a permanent high-level nuclear waste repository in 1987, however, the target date to start loading waste into the repository has been pushed back repeatedly, from 1998 as the first target date. The president’s 2010 budget request appears to continue the Yucca Mountain licensing process, but the significant funding cut would delay the current planned 2020 opening of the repository. The president is also convening a blue ribbon panel to look for alternative solutions for managing the nation’s nuclear waste. The waste is currently being safely stored at the reactor sites around the country.
 
Only a small portion of the energy potential in nuclear fuel is used during the creation of nuclear power. In recycling, the spent fuel is processed to separate waste materials so that the fissionable uranium and plutonium can be recycled into new fuel. This is referred to as the “closed” fuel cycle. 
 
The benefit to the closed fuel cycle is that it would reuse fuel, allowing producers to extract more energy from the given supply of natural uranium, which could become scarce if there is large expansion of nuclear power. It could also potentially save space in an underground repository, though it would not completely eliminate the need for long-term isolation of nuclear waste from the environment.
 
The downside is that, with existing technology, the closed fuel cycle is generally considered to be substantially more expensive than the once-through cycle. Reprocessing also raises concerns about the proliferation of weapons-grade materials.
 
“There are near-term technologies available for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel that could be deployed in the United States relatively quickly, but there are some well-documented concerns raised about this strategy,” said Gordon. “I am also aware of ongoing research in more advanced technologies that could address the nuclear fuel cycle issues we face today.”
 
The Committee and witnesses discussed the need for a more robust long-term research and development program, including an R&D road map, to address outstanding issues and to clarify the best role for both the federal government and the private sector.  
 
R&D could lead to new technologies such as advanced reactors that would allow recycling of used fuel multiple times. Depending on the technology chosen, fast reactors could create new fuel from spent fuel in a manner that would allow it to utilize nearly all of the spent fuel’s fissionable constituents. Heat is the main limiting factor on a repository’s capacity and these fast reactors could destroy some of the longest-lived heat producing transuranics from the fuel. Reducing these constituents from the waste and reducing the long-term heat generation could provide significant disposal benefits.
 
For more information, including on the Committee’s work on nuclear energy, please see our website.
 
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