Sunday, May 4, 2008

Nuclear Reprocessing

For my paper, I looked into the plausibility of restarting a nuclear reprocessing program for recycling spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants. I picked this topic because I feel as though it could be something that will be a subject of debate in the near future. Thus far, Yucca Mountain- the underground geological nuclear repository- has been if not a disaster, certainly a headache for the nuclear industry and politicians alike. About 12 billion has been thrown into the project, but it keeps getting snagged in incorrect lead times and political opposition. What's worse, the DoE is going to require at least another 40 billion before the project is completed and they're currently lobbying for another 20 billion on top of that in order to enlarge the repository that Nevadans are furiously fighting against. This arguable fiasco, coupled with the rising cost of oil and gas makes me believe that the American ventures into nuclear energy will go in one of two ways; we will either extricate ourselves from the technology altogether or we will heavily look into reprocessing in order to reduce our overall nuclear waste volume in order to make Yucca a more feasible project.

Approximately 97% of the "waste" from nuclear power generation is still valuable uranium and plutonium material. The fuel does not deplete like an empty gas tank or a dead battery, but rather gets to the point where the amount of heat generated is not enough to justify keeping it in the reactor versus reloading with fresh fuel. However, by recapturing the uranium and plutonium material and reusing them in newly fabricated fuel can substantially reduce the overall nuclear waste as well as reduce the need for environmentally detrimental uranium mining.

However, America has long been opposed to reprocessing in the country, and not without reason. The mixed oxide fuel from reprocessing is potentially useful in the fabrication of nuclear weapons. The bottleneck in technology for countries trying to develop nuclear weapons is the capability to extract uranium and plutonium, much like in reprocessing. Also, the economics of developing reactors that would take reprocessed fuel as well as setting up the reprocessing infrastructure is costly, enough to make it fiscally undesirable. However, as gas prices increase, Yucca Mountain is perpetually mired in debate, and coal keeps earning the publics disdain for being environmentally dirty, the picture may change...

I enjoyed having the opportunity to research and report on this topic and I hope that other people will find it a decent read. The fiscal comparison of Yucca vs reprocessing was a very quick calculation using the numbers quoted in the newspapers of late, but one that I hope will stir some concern about just how expensive the repository is, and how this number is not translated well when many people talk about the cheap operating and fuel costs of nuclear power.

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