Waste not, want not

Efforts under way to manage and reprocess nuclear waste

Nuclear energy, first generated in the 1950s, supplies power to one out of five homes and businesses nationally. With climate change policy dominating congressional debate, nuclear power–largely dormant for the past 25 years–may be poised for a comeback.

Unlike fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, nuclear generation does not emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas blamed as the principal contributor to global warming. In addition, nuclear reactors produce electricity in much larger quantities and more reliably than other non-carbon emitting generation sources like wind and solar.

“As a zero-carbon energy source, nuclear power must be part of our energy mix as we work toward energy independence and meeting the challenge of global warming,” predicts U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Stephen Chu. 

Nuclear power plants use fission, the process of splitting atoms apart to produce electricity. When a uranium atom splits, heat is released. The heat turns water into steam, which spins turbines to generate electricity.

The main drawback to nuclear power has always been what to do with the waste. Currently, spent fuel rods are stored at nuclear power plants in one of two ways: in special cooling pools (similar to swimming pools) where water removes heat from the rods and shields the area from the radiation, and in dry cask containers stored in air-conditioned concrete or steel buildings. Both measures, however, were only meant as temporary steps.

For the last quarter-century, the federal government has pursued a policy of developing a permanent, central repository for storing the waste–an effort that has been hampered by political and legal resistance and now appears to have been abandoned.

Back to the Future

According to the Electric Power Research Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based utility research consortium that includes electric co-ops, almost 100 times more energy remains available in spent fuel rods than is produced during the first cycle of use. To fully realize the potential of nuclear power as an essential part of America’s energy mix, scientists are researching how to effectively and safely recycle used nuclear fuel and affordably reprocess it to generate electricity again.

With this capability, nuclear power plants could operate with a closed fuel cycle; the same material being used many times, leaving limited waste to store. The World Nuclear Association estimates materials potentially available for recycling spent fuel rods could keep American nuclear reactors running for the next 30 years.

“Like it or not, the nuclear fuel cycle needs to be addressed,” explains John Holt, senior principal for generation & fuels at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “Even if we don’t build any new nuclear power plants–although we will–we’re creating more nuclear waste just by operating existing plants. If we start reprocessing, the waste currently sitting at plants can be used as a second round of fuel. You’re still going to have waste, but there will be a lot less of it.”

To learn more about America’s evolving nuclear power program, visit www.ne.doe.gov.

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