Comment: the myth of nuclear waste by Marjorie Mazel Hecht

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the myth of nuclear waste by Marjorie Mazel Hecht

There’s no such thing as nuclear waste! This nasty term was invented just to stop the development of civilian nuclear power.

The spent fuel from nuclear power plants is actually a precious resource: About 96% of it can be recycled into new nuclear fuel. No other fuel source can make this claim—wood, coal, oil, or gas. Once these fuels are burned, all that’s left is some ash or airborne pollutant by-products, which nuclear energy does not produce.

Thus, nuclear is a truly renewable resource. Furthermore, unlike wind, solar, and other so-called alternative energy sources, a nuclear fission reactor (the fast reactor or breeder reactor) can actually create more fuel than it uses up.

In the Atoms for Peace days of the 1950s and 1960s, it was assumed that spent reactor fuel would be reprocessed into new reactor fuel. The initial plan was for the United States and other nuclear nations to have closed nuclear fuel cycles, not “once through” cycles. In the closed fuel cycle, uranium is mined, enriched, and processed into fuel rods; then it is burned as fuel and reprocessed, to start the cycle again.

“Burying” spent fuel (as planned for Yucca Mountain) was not in the Atoms for Peace picture. Why bury a fuel source that could provide thousands of metric tons of uranium-238, fissile uranium-235, and plutonium-239 that could be used to make new reactor fuel?

But, as explained below, the U.S. stopped its reprocessing program in the 1970s and instead now stores spent nuclear fuel, waiting for a long-term burial site. Despite the scary headlines, the total amount of spent fuel in storage in the United States is small. The U.S. Department of Energy stated in 2007: “If we were to take all the spent fuel produced to date in the United States and stack it side-by-side, end-to-end, the fuel assemblies would cover an area about the size of a football field to a depth of about five yards.”

The amount of usable fuel in that hypothetical football field, however, is vast. Burying 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel would waste 66,000 metric tons of uranium-238, which could be used to make new fuel, and an additional 1,200 metric tons of fissile uranium- 235 and plutonium-239, the energetic part of the fuel mixture. Looking at it another way, the spent fuel produced by a single 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant over its 40-year lifetime is equal to the energy in 5 billion gallons of oil, or 37 million tons of coal. Would you throw that away?

In addition to the multi-trillion-dollar amount of new reactor fuel that could be recycled from 96% of the spent nuclear fuel now in storage, the remaining 4 % of so-called high-level waste—about 2,500 metric tons— is also usable: