America’s answer to nuclear waste: recycle it

Nuclear fuel re-processing will be one of the pillars of America's new nuclear power strategy, overturning a thirty-year ban on reprocessing technologies.

Advance Burner Reactors running on recycled nuclear fuel are part of President Bush’s answer to the problem of nuclear waste disposal.

But the Advanced Burner Reactors are yet to be designed. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership plan sees the first such reactor coming into use by 2023.

Nuclear fuel reprocessing is controversial because current technologies separate out weapons-grade plutonium in the process, and this could then be used for producing nuclear weapons. This is the fear behind a ban that has lasted since the Ford presidency in the 1970s.

President Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which the re-processing plans form a part of, will try to tackle nuclear proliferation concerns by separating nations into “suppliers” and “users” of nuclear fuel. The use of reprocessing technology would then become the monopoly of stable “supplier” countries, it is hoped.

The US also hopes to develop reprocessing technologies that avoid the production of weapons-grade plutonium.

“Together, we will develop and deploy innovative advanced reactors and new methods to recycle spent fuel. This will allow us to produce more energy, while dramatically reducing the amount of nuclear waste and eliminating the nuclear by-products that unstable regimes or terrorists could use to make weapons,” President Bush said on Saturday.

The nuclear strategy will bring “large amounts of low-cost electricity without emitting air pollution or greenhouse gases,” he said.

As part of its 2007 fiscal year budget, the US government has allocated $632 m for research, development and construction of nuclear facilities, and wants to start constructing new nuclear plants by the end of the decade. Work on the last American new nuclear power plant started in the 1970s.

The drive to recycle nuclear fuel has been partly motivated by strong opposition to storing nuclear waste in the US, at sites such as the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, where protests continue.

By Goska Romanowicz

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie