On November 15, 2005, at the ANS Winter Meeting, Jacques Besnainou, Senior Executive Vice President, Reprocessing and Recycling, AREVA, spoke about fuel reprocessing, which is now properly being referred to as fuel recycling. In contrast to other talks and papers on the subject, Mr. Besnainou did not focus on a comparison in cost between fresh fuel and fuel that includes recycled materials – sometimes referred to as MOX (mixed oxide fuels).
Instead, he emphasized that a main motivation for reestablishing a closed fuel cycle in the United States is to reduce the volume and activity of the materials that need to eventually be stored in the Yucca Mountain. By implementing recycle, the load on the repository for each kilowatt hour of electricity produced with nuclear fission will be significantly reduced and may even allow a single repository to store the waste for hundreds of years worth of reactor plant operation.
He described how three key isotopes – americium, cesium, and strontium – are the major sources of heat production in used nuclear fuel, and how separating them from the waste stream would increase the capacity of the repository by reducing the assumed heat burden over time.
He also described an evolutionary recycling process that keeps all actinides together, uranium, plutonium and other transuranic elements and puts them back into the cycle as mixed oxides. Unlike the PUREX process that is currently used, there is no point in the cycle when separated, bomb useful material like plutonium-239 is available for diversion.
According to Mr. Besnainou’s timeline, an evolutionary recycling facility capable of handling all newly produced used fuel and “legacy” used fuel that has already been produced, could be operating in the United States by 2020. He also described certain desirable enhancements to that facility that can already be envisioned to improve its ability to handle things like a second recycle of fuel that began its reactor life as MOX already.
This idea of a closed fuel cycle that is not vulnerable to any diversion of materials for potential weapons use should be extremely interesting to environmentalists and people in the anti-nuclear camp. With efforts to minimize and reuse waste materials, the nuclear industry will take a big step in answering the concers of its long time critics.
Of course, I am not going to hold my breath waiting for certain professional anti-nuclear activists to embrace this concept. It would spoil many years worth of effort and change their whole outlook on the world. Accepting nuclear recycling as a good idea might even cause them to have to look for a new job.