We must take responsibility for the entire nuclear fuel cycle

By Jill Marie Parillo, October 2, 2008

Nuclear energy is very exciting: It’s going to solve the energy crisis, end U.S. reliance on oil and the rogue states that sell it, and help developing nations meet their doubling energy demands. This is all possible, we’re told, because the U.S. Energy Department, industry, and the national laboratories will develop new technologies, new policies, and new international regimes to facilitate the sale of nuclear reactors and fuel using proliferation-resistant technologies, all the while following nonproliferation codes of conduct.

If I read Alan Hanson’s piece without thinking twice, I wouldn’t understand at all why there’s any controversy over a global nuclear renaissance. Miles Pomper says we should think first about principles, then technology. Alan lays out the principles. He says nuclear energy could help meet growing energy demands, but agrees that legitimate proliferation concerns exist due to the dual-use nature of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Alan then explains how such worries could be put to rest with fuel-supply arrangements, mentioned by Stephen Goldberg, which will curb the spread of enrichment technology, and “safe and proliferation-resistant fuel recycling [a euphemism for reprocessing],” which has already been demonstrated in Europe.

It’s exciting to talk about principles and futuristic technologies, but what about accountability and responsibility? Developing nations do have growing energy needs, but it’s totally irresponsible and shortsighted to sell them nuclear reactors and fuel and then leave them with tons of toxic waste and no long-term safe storage plan.

I’m not saying proliferation-resistant technology can’t be developed or that nuclear energy isn’t a potential answer to the energy crisis, but I want to know who’s going to take responsibility for the waste that’s going to be created and how they will dispose of it in a safe and sustainable manner.

I know Nevada doesn’t want the 50,000 tons of commercially generated waste that’s ready to be placed in the Yucca Mountain repository. (Even if it did, with 2,000 tons of U.S. civilian spent fuel produced each year, Yucca will be legally full before it ever even opens.) I also know that France wants to sell nuclear fuel and provide reprocessing services to developing countries, yet has no intention of storing resulting waste.

If the United States took responsibility for commercially generated waste and decided that reprocessing was its long-term solution, it still wouldn’t solve the problem of finding safe and sustainable storage for the other 90 percent of radioactive material separated from the reusable plutonium. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists has proven that reprocessing actually expands the total volume of low-level radioactive waste created by a factor of 20. Tom Cochran already mentioned the technical hurdles of closing the fuel cycle through reprocessing and fast neutron reactors. I would add another one–cost: A reprocessing facility will cost $35 billion to build and a prototype fast burner reactor will require anywhere from $40 billion to $150 billion in federal subsidies.

I do agree with Alan that just because GNEP’s technology is unproven today, doesn’t mean it won’t work someday. Congress appropriated $149 million for GNEP research and development, but with more money and more flexibility to research a variety of safe and sustainable storage solutions, not just reprocessing, U.S. labs could discover better ways to deal with the waste problem that exists today. Until the United States develops a solution for its own nuclear waste problem and can offer it to all nations interested in nuclear power, it’s not responsible to facilitate a global nuclear renaissance.


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