‘Just pick one’

A chemical engineer calls for speed in settling the nuclear waste storage issue

A plan for reprocessing nuclear waste, cancelled during the Carter administration, could have made a waste-storage site at Yucca Mountain less urgent, one scientist says.

A plan for reprocessing nuclear waste, cancelled during the Carter administration, could have made a waste-storage site at Yucca Mountain less urgent, one scientist says.

Nuclear waste, Chernobyl and Homer Simpson share the blame for creating anti-nuclear power “psychosis.” Despite the psychosis, nuclear power plants are a growth industry as the United States attempts to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Risks, he says, are mitigated by sound engineering, safety controls and high-level security.

“Homer Simpson can run today’s nuclear power plant,” said Terry Battisti, a chemical engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory, who was in Reno to deliver a scholarly paper. Atomic energy was first harnessed for commercial electrical power at the INL in 1951.

He read his paper, “Reprocessing of Spent Nuclear Fuels—the Closed Fuel Cycle and Its Effect on Waste Repository,” at the University of Nevada, Reno on April 19.

The United States has 103 nuclear power plants operating and 30 more slated for construction within 15 years. All of these plants are open-fuel cycles, meaning the fuel is put into the reactor, used once, removed and stored.

Dr. Battisti wants to educate U.S. citizens about reprocessing spent fuels to reduce nuclear waste by 95 percent and reduce the storage period for the remainder from 10,000 to 300 years. Russia, Britain and France are already reprocessing spent fuels to limit waste and storage.

So why is the federal government looking for storage facilities like Yucca Mountain rather than exploring the idea of reprocessing plants?

An executive order to end reprocessing was signed during the Carter administration when Allied Chemical had nearly completed the Barnwell Reprocessing Center. The $2 billion plant was dismantled. Although President Reagan cancelled the order, companies were less willing to invest in reprocessing plants.

However, the United States does have one 1962 reprocessing plant in Georgia. Today, this plant reprocesses warheads purchased from Russia. The United States helps other nations deal with their nuclear waste while neglecting, Battisti said, to deal with its own.

As things stand, nuclear power plants in the United States will continue cranking out waste—requiring transportation and storage. Eventually, the storage capacity of these plants will be reached, forcing the nuclear waste issue front and center. Spent fuels allowed to cool are burning at 4 million watts. That’s a lot of power that could be recaptured for reuse. Fuels used once contain 96-98 percent still-usable material.

According to Battisti, the current open-enrichment process is “akin to buying $20 of gas and dumping $19 on the ground.”

Open enrichment will require 22 storage facilities with the same capacity as Yucca Mountain by 2100, he said. If spent fuel is recycled by building one reprocessing facility for every 33 plants, the United States will need only one storage facility for all nuclear waste produced previously and in the future.

Reprocessing could alleviate the immediate need for a storage site, taking pressure off Yucca Mountain, and possibly allowing Congress to find a more suitable site. Uranium, like oil or natural gas, is a finite resource. Supplies will diminish in 50 years if the fuel cycle remains open. Reprocessing spent fuel lessens environmental impact while reducing carbon emissions, Battisti said.

Scientists agree on reprocessing but argue over dry or aquatic reprocessing procedures. Battisti finds “no deal breakers” in this debate.

“Just pick one,” he said. “We’re behind the eight ball right now, and we need to do something more than argue.”