I learned as an English major that writers are careful about selecting the words that they use. Whenever I speak about reusing the materials left over from the first pass through a nuclear reactor, I use the word “recycle”, but many people seem to like the word “reprocessing” instead. I am not sure why they use that word, but I know why I like to use the word “recycle”.
I have been recycling materials all of my life – when I was a kid we even saved citrus peals in a bucket beside the refrigerator and then emptied the bucket into a compost heap in the backyard. After a while, Dad decided that method was not the most efficient, he bought a couple of rabbits and began feeding them the citrus peels. He claimed that the droppings were excellent fertilizer for his citrus trees and was pleased to have a more direct method of reusing the raw materials.
When it comes to nuclear fuels, the stakes are much higher. With the first generation commercial reactors that are currently operating, approximately 95% of the initial potential energy of the input fuel is still left in the fuel rods when they are removed. There are a lot of technical reasons for this and the explanation is beyond the scope of a blog entry.
However, I like to explain it like this. Imagine building a fire with a small amount of kindling spread strategically through the pile of wood. However, this is the first fire that you ever built, so you do not understand that splitting the logs and having a variety of wood sizes is a smart way to operate a fire for maximum fuel economy.
You light the fire and enjoy the pretty flames, but the kindling burns out before the large logs with bark covering get hot enough to begin burning. If you were like our current nuclear plant operators, you would simply remove all of the logs, put them into a waste storage area, and build a new fire with new kindling and new large logs.
If you do not have an axe, or if kindling and wood are especially plentiful in your area, or if your neighbors pass a law against chopping wood, you might go along this way for quite some time. At some point, however, you might notice that there is a rather large pile of unused wood stacking up. If you don’t, perhaps someone else who is a bit more educated or a bit more willing to work hard or be creative might see an opportunity in your waste wood pile.
I believe that is approximately where the US stands with regard to nuclear fuel recycling. Some of us see those well monitored and well cared for fuel storage areas as incredible opportunities. It looks like the secret might be getting out, and even politicians, not normally the most inventive folks, are getting a clue.
Bloomberg.com recently published an article about a proposal to increase investment in research for nuclear fuel recycling titled Bush’s Budget Seeks $250 Mln for Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plan.
I am not a big fan of the proposal – it looks like it is really aimed at protecting some jobs at national laboratories more than at actually enabling real recycling to occur. However, at least the conversation is shifting to a different tone.
BTW – there is a minor historical correction to think about when reading the article. Jimmy Carter was not the originator of the initial ban on reprocessing – the executive order stopping the program was actually signed by President Gerald Ford. Carter simply extended the existing ban once he came into office. The effort to halt reprocessing was a bipartisan effort that was popular in many establishment venues. The idea of a plutonium economy was deeply troubling to people whose prosperity depended on the idea that energy is a scarce commodity.