After spending a couple of days at the Reactor and Fuel Cycle Subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, I had a sense of deja vu that I could not shake. I kept telling myself that I had heard many of the ideas about used fuel management before. I did some looking around and found an editorial I wrote in the third issue of the newsletter that was then called Atomic Energy Insights. (I learned pretty quickly that the initials AEI were already taken by an organization with a different view of the world, so I changed the name to Atomic Insights.)
Here is a rerun of that June 1995 editorial, with the old initials and outdated numbers left intact:
Letter from the Editor: Recycling: Practice What You Preach
Recycle, reuse, reduce. These are the watchwords of people who are concerned about reducing the impact that man and his activities have on the world’s natural resources. The ideas that the words embody are logical and can be reasonably applied to making the world a more prosperous place to live.
I was introduced to the concepts at a very early age. As a family project we constructed a compost heap that received yard waste and selected kitchen scraps. The soil surrounding the compost heap proved to be a good place for growing tomatoes. Unfortunately, I did not develop a taste for tomatoes until I left home.
Our recycling efforts were not limited to composting, however. We also stored and collected bottles and kept rabbits for their ability to turn fruit skins into fertilizer for the fruit trees. Dad liked the idea of a closed cycle system.
My parents were not Environmentalists because it was fashionable. They simply believed in being good stewards of the gifts they were given. They were also natural conservationists because they grew up in households with limited budgets during the Depression and World War II.
What does all this have to do with atomic energy? The sad fact is that the United States, a nation that spends about 200 million dollars per day importing energy, is currently planning to throw away material that represents a tremendous energy resource.
Waste Not; Want Not
Our government is also working diligently to convince some of our oldest allies that they should follow our lead and abandon their multi-billion dollar investments in fuel recycling systems. Some of the nations that we are trying to influence have been importing the bulk of their energy supplies for hundreds of years and see nuclear power as their means to energy independence.
Amazingly enough, it was during the middle of the ecology minded 1970s that the U. S. government decreed that the proper nuclear fuel cycle was a “once through” cycle in light water reactors. That “throw away” nuclear fuel policy remains in effect today, in an era where it is considered heresy to throw away soda pop bottles.
Energy policy makers in the U. S. are discussing the feasibility of direct disposal of former weapons material rather than using it as fuel in reactors. The heating value of the 200 tons of bomb material that the United States currently is paying to keep in secure storage is roughly equivalent to that of 400 million tons of oil worth approximately $48 billion. This policy is not being adequately questioned.
It’s Not What You Say…
There are no plans at all to try to make use of the energy potential of the vast quantities of uranium 238 that are currently stored near the gaseous diffusion enrichment plants. The material has a proven use in breeder and converter reactor systems.
The same people who staunchly advocate this treatment of nuclear material as waste would be appalled if they attended a party where the host did not have recycling bins to collect cans containing less than a penny’s worth of aluminum, one of the world’s most common elements.
AEI will tell you a little about proven methods of reducing the volume of material that must actually be stored as waste. There is an article suggesting a way to combine material from weapons programs with “spent” nuclear fuel to produce a large quantity of electricity as well as one on current recycling programs in France and Great Britain.
It’s What You Do
Finally, we will talk about the long term, costly effort to eliminate the possibility of efficient use of nuclear natural resources. AEI will share our perspective on the arguments used and the validity of the claims. We hope you find it provocative.
Note: Remember, the above was published in June 1995, during the middle of the Clinton Administration and three years before the US government hit its self imposed deadline for beginning to accept shipments of used nuclear fuel.
If you want to read the articles from that issue introduced above, you can find an index at Atomic Insights, June 1995.