The reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel allows more energy to be gained from the same amount of fissile material, produces less waste, and causes the waste that is generated to be less radioactive than when spent fuel is stored without being reprocessed.
Somehow, the French produce the best examples of this process. France has one of the most standardized and streamlined procedures for nuclear fuel reprocessing in the world and has seen great success in the closing of its nuclear fuel cycle.
According to the IAEA in France, “Through recycling, up to 96% of the reusable material in spent fuel can be recovered.” Additionally, “France states that the national policy of recycling spent fuel has meant that it needs 17% less natural uranium to operate its plants than it would without recycling.” France, in this fashion, gets the most energy possible out of its uranium inputs while also minimizing the need to store nuclear waste.
Meanwhile, government barriers have prevented the U.S. from following suit.
History in the U.S.
The U.S. has reprocessed spent fuel for commercial power production before. In fact, nuclear power in the U.S. was initially intended to be a closed fuel cycle wherein uranium is mined, then enriched, turned into fuel, and then burned by reactors to create energy. While the fuel is powering the reactor, some of the uranium turns into plutonium which would then be removed and reprocessed at a single central facility.
The United States has had three commercial reprocessing plants, all of which have been decommissioned. The last plant was closed under the Carter administration when spent fuel reprocessing was put to an end over nuclear weapons non-proliferation concerns.
Commercial nuclear fuel and weapons-grade uranium and plutonium exist at far different levels of enrichment. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to over 90% U-235 and weapons-grade plutonium is around 93% Pu-239. Commercial fuel is enriched to between 3 and 5% U-235. In addition to this, closing the nuclear fuel cycle through reprocessing would actually benefit non-proliferation, by leaving less high-level waste in place at sites around the country. As so many other countries reprocess fuel, including Russia, the line between nuclear weapons production and the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is more clear than ever, and these concerns are becoming outdated.
Where it Stands
In 2008, two companies alerted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of their intent to pursue a license for a reprocessing facility. The NRC has a schedule for their preliminary work on resolving these regulatory gaps in fuel reprocessing, but even though this schedule began in 2013 and is set to run through 2032, only the first of 19 sections are marked as “complete”. Progress on this issue has been incredibly slow.
Industry letters of interest on the topic have been submitted to the NRC from numerous organizations including Westinghouse Electric Company, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and EnergySolutions. One of the more recent letters comes from the American Nuclear Society (ANS) sent a letter to the NRC in 2020 encouraging the regulatory agency to resume a proposed rulemaking on the topic of spent fuel reprocessing.
The letter refers to the organization’s position that the “minimization of waste represents a key factor needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of nuclear energy, both in the United States and globally.” The letter also pointed out that because many advanced reactor designs currently in the development pipeline are designed to be able to utilize the energy that is latent in our current spent fuel reserves, “the lack of an efficient, technically robust, and technology-inclusive regulatory foundation for reprocessing and recycling is a barrier to innovation.” That is to say, planning not to open up fuel reprocessing both leaves readily usable energy on the table and discourages innovations by not taking advantage of the full potential of new technologies.
The ANS is suggesting a proposed resumption of the NRC’s Spent Fuel Reprocessing Rulemaking that would address the two most prominent regulatory gaps that currently stand in the way of commercial reprocessing facilities. These gaps are cost and nonproliferation. A resumption of the rulemaking would allow the NRC to bridge these gaps in the construction of a “comprehensive regulatory framework” for this type of facility before any license applications are submitted.
The United States should not continue to abide by an outdated non-proliferation policy that prevents the U.S. commercial nuclear power sector from utilizing fuel to its maximum potential and requires that it create more and more dangerous waste rather than turn that waste into something useful.
The United States would benefit immensely from regulatory action to allow the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. This would allow nuclear energy companies to use their fuel more efficiently while also lowering costs in waste storage and disposal. The prohibition on the reprocessing of spent fuel serves as an inefficient government barrier to energy production.
This piece was originally published at Catalyst as part of the Catalyst Policy Fellow Program.