Reprocessing nuclear fuel & the Catch 22 Legacy

Generating electricity using nuclear power includes processing uranium.  After 40 years, the waste from the process can safely be put into containers for storage, though it is still dangerous to living things. After 10,000 years, the leftovers, the nuclear waste, will no longer be dangerous. Currently in the U.S., we leave the waste in ponds at the power plants and then put it in containers and bury it in the ground (a.k.a. “geologic depositories”).

“Nuclear reprocessing” means separating the waste—taking uranium that didn’t get used the first time out of the “trash” so it can be used to generate electricity.  The uranium is chemically separated from the rest of the waste and one of the new leftovers is plutonium, the radioactive ingredient in nuclear bombs.

Other countries, like France, reprocess their nuclear waste even though plutonium is left over, usually in the form of a highly concentrated power.  In the U.S., we’ve recently heard both 2008 presidential candidates say they support Americans reprocessing nuclear waste. (Private companies in the U.S. stopped doing so in 1976.)

One concern about nuclear reprocessing is individuals acquiring the powdered plutonium leftovers with which they can devise a nuclear weapon.  But for reprocessing nuclear waste, it would be extremely difficult for an individual to develop a nuclear weapon. There is disagreement among scientists about whether the plutonium powder is too radioactive to steal.

“. . .Commercial-scale reprocessing facilities handle so much of this material that it has proven impossible to keep track of it accurately in a timely manner, making it feasible that the theft of enough plutonium to build several bombs could go undetected for years,” reports the Union of Concerned Scientists website.

The union urges us to continue the current program of storing unseparated radioactive nuclear waste in the ground.  The union claims, among other things, that storing waste is viable and secure option for at least 50 years.  I don’t know how helpful that is.

What all this means is that any civilian reprocessing plant must be highly controlled—no break-ins, no angry employees, no errors; highly-controlled systems monitoring the amounts and locations of the plutonium; it would seem armed guarding of the sites would be necessary.

Perhaps all this can be “safely” accomplished in the U.S. But if it can be done, should it?  The U.S. decided that until now, we should not reprocess because of the threat of potential harm from nuclear weapons.

It’s commonly recognized that one American factor contributing to the 9-11 event was a complete breakdown of federal intelligence systems—that’s clear from even a cursory review of the 9-11 Commission report.  A similar failure of systems among civilian or governmental reprocessors could also be disastrous.  No reprocessing plant can ever suffer a breakdown of its systems.  Can we guarantee ourselves that?

But the main dilemma is not storage vs. reprocessing—the dilemma is using nuclear power today vs. not using nuclear power today.  And the heart of the problem with the nuclear choice is that it sets the agenda for all future generations in a way that cannot be amended.  Any choice can be looked at in that way, but it is different with nuclear.  Choosing nuclear is choosing a catch-22 for your kids and all people in the future, no matter how far they progress as nations: There will be radioactive waste on your planet. You will guard it.

Just because reprocessing has been safely carried out in other parts of the world does not mean the U.S. should embrace it.  The U.S. should take the lead in large-scale implementation of renewable resources.

The following websites were consulted during creation of this blog: