WASHINGTON—The nuclear energy industry supports continued research into more efficient and proliferation-resistant technologies to reprocess used nuclear fuel. But the industry sees significant challenges – economic and otherwise – to overcome before reprocessing can be developed in the United States, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s chief nuclear officer, Marvin Fertel, told a congressional panel today.
The fact that reprocessing serves to reduce volumes of used nuclear fuel does not negate the need for a geologic facility for long-term disposal of high-level radioactive waste, Fertel told the House Science Committee’s energy subcommittee. This factor needs to be considered in developing national policies on reprocessing.
“Future reprocessing of commercial used nuclear fuel is a worthy future goal, but it must overcome several challenges before it can be employed in the United States,” Fertel said.
Closing the nuclear fuel cycle by reprocessing, or separating uranium and plutonium out of used fuel to permit further use of these elements, is used by 12 of the 33 nations that generate nuclear energy and all with “some form of government funding,” Fertel said.
He noted that reprocessing has not been employed in the United States for more than 20 years. The technology was banned by President Carter due to proliferation concerns. President Reagan lifted the ban, and President Clinton later reinstituted it.
Even if the ban on reprocessing were lifted again, the practice is not economically viable at this time because the cost of nuclear fuel from reprocessing is considerably more expensive than new fuel production, and cost reductions in disposal are not yet evident.
“Reprocessing requires massive and expensive facilities, similar to large chemical plants, that the public or private sector must develop and license with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Fertel said.
He noted that, while reprocessing may have the benefits of further non-proliferation, the costs above what otherwise would be paid for fuel supply and waste disposal should not be borne by consumers.
Development of reprocessing technologies should take place in parallel with the development of the planned Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository in a manner that would enhance the repository’s efficiency.
“Reprocessing has the potential to provide future benefits that will make disposal more efficient and cost effective, but current reprocessing technology offers limited assistance to waste disposal,” he said.
Fertel expressed the industry’s support for exploration of advanced reprocessing and waste treatment technologies that support the administration’s goal of developing nuclear fuel that is “safer, more efficient and more proliferation resistant.”
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.