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My Turn: Time to take fresh look at nuclear recycling

Last modified: 9/24/2014 12:22:51 AM
It has been easy for people to forget in the decades since President Jimmy Carter banned the recycling of used fuel from nuclear power plants that it was a way to increase the production of emission-free energy, while extending uranium resources and reducing the amount of nuclear waste. The benefits were as closely linked as atoms in water.

Nuclear recycling is the most efficient way to produce a large amount of zero-carbon energy at a nuclear plant – because the used fuel remaining in the reactor can be chemically reprocessed into a mixed-oxide fuel for use in generating more electricity. This is called closing the fuel cycle.

France recycles used fuel from its 54 nuclear plants to obtain 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Not surprisingly, France has the lowest per capita carbon emissions in Europe and the cheapest electricity.

England, Japan and Russia also recycle their used fuel and a number of other countries with nuclear programs have the same done at reprocessing facilities. But the United States continues to treat its used fuel as if it were nuclear waste requiring disposal in a deep-geologic repository like the one planned at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. That policy is nonsensical.

The standard objection to recycling is that it can lead to weapons proliferation and that it’s not economical. But no country has ever developed the capability to produce nuclear weapons from the recycling of used nuclear fuel. And the economics argument has no traction in countries such as France.

There is more than 70,000 metric tons of used fuel stored at nuclear power plant sites across the country, including 550 tons at Seabrook and 620 tons at Vermont Yankee. It’s past due time to make use of this valuable resource.

The loom of climate change should alter our perspective on the risks and costs of nuclear recycling.

(Howard Shaffer is a nuclear engineer and lives in Enfield.)


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