Why doesn’t the US recycle nuclear waste?

This article discusses why the United States does not have a programme when it comes to recycling nuclear waste. We discuss the logistics, as well as the feasibility of these processes.

Why doesn’t the US recycle nuclear waste?

The process of recycling nuclear waste was shut down during the Carter administration in 1977 over the concerns of proliferation of nuclear weapons, and has been the same ever since then.

What is Nuclear Waste?

Nuclear waste, also known as radioactive waste, is created by nuclear reactors, fuel processing factories, hospitals, and research institutes. 

Decommissioning and dismantling nuclear reactors and other nuclear installations generates radioactive waste. There are two types of waste: high-level and low-level trash. 

High-level waste is spent fuel that has been removed from reactors after they have produced energy. Low-level waste is generated by reactor operations, as well as medical, academic, industrial, and other commercial use of radioactive materials.

In the United States, the NRC controls the storage and disposal of all commercially generated radioactive wastes. 

The NRC also oversees high-level wastes created by the Department of Energy that are stored for a long time and are not utilised for or part of research and development. 

Regulations define minimum acceptable performance standards for waste management licensees while allowing for technical freedom.

Why do we need nuclear energy?

Nuclear power helps to safeguard the environment by generating large volumes of carbon-free electricity. It provides electricity to populations in 28 states and contributes to a variety of non-electric applications ranging from medicine to space exploration.

In the United States, nuclear power is the most common form of clean energy. It creates about 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year, accounting for more than half of the country’s emissions-free power. Each year, this saves more than 470 million metric tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of eliminating 100 million automobiles from the road.

Nuclear reactors’ thermal energy might be utilised to decarbonize other energy-intensive industries, such as transportation, which is the major source of carbon pollution.

Nuclear power facilities operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They are meant to run for extended periods of time and require refuelling every 1.5–2 years. 

Nuclear power plants ran at full capacity more than 92 percent of the time in 2019, making it the most reliable energy source available today.

The nuclear power sector in the United States sustains almost half a million jobs and adds an estimated $60 billion to the country’s gross domestic product each year. 

Nuclear power stations in the United States may employ up to 700 people, with incomes that are 30 percent more than the national average. They also provide billions of dollars in federal and state tax income to local economies each year.

How is nuclear waste recycled?

The procedure for recycling nuclear fuel is simple. It entails turning waste plutonium and uranium into a “mixed oxide” that may be utilised to generate more energy in nuclear power reactors. 

In France, spent fuel from the country’s 58 nuclear power stations is transported to a recycling facility in the English Channel’s Cap La Hague, where it rests and cools for three years in demineralized water. 

After that, it’s split into mixed-oxide fuel for recycling. The non-recyclable nuclear material is encased in glass logs, where it will remain until France constructs a deep-underground depository for non-recyclable trash.

When used nuclear fuel is reprocessed, more energy can be extracted from the same quantity of fissile material, less waste is produced, and the waste produced is less radioactive than when spent fuel is kept without being reprocessed.

The current method for storage and disposal

Spent nuclear fuel is stored in “spent fuel pools” at all nuclear power reactors in the United States. These pools have steel liners and are composed of reinforced concrete that is several feet thick. 

The water, which is usually around 40 feet deep, shields the radiation while also cooling the rods. As the pools fill up, utilities transfer some of the older wasted fuel to dry cask storage.

These casks are concrete-encased stainless steel canisters. Before being transferred to a cask, fuel is normally cooled in a pool for at least five years.

The NRC has approved transfer as early as three years, compared to the industry standard of around ten years. For up to 40 years, the NRC validates cask designs and permits dry cask storage facilities. It is possible to renew certificates and licences.

Both spent fuel pools and dry casks, according to the NRC, provide acceptable protection for public health and safety as well as the environment. 

As a result, there is no compelling safety or security rationale to require earlier fuel transfer from pool to cask. Spent fuel storage at power plant sites is seen as transitory, with permanent disposal being the ultimate aim. 

In Texas and New Mexico, the NRC is presently examining two proposals for “Consolidated Interim Storage Facilities”. These facilities would store spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors until a permanent disposal facility could be built.

There are currently no facilities for the long-term disposal of high-level waste.

Why doesn’t the US recycle nuclear waste?

The United States has already recycled spent fuel for commercial power generation.

In truth, nuclear power in the United States was designed to be a closed fuel cycle, with uranium being mined, refined, made into fuel, and then burnt by reactors to generate electricity. 

Some of the uranium in the fuel converts to plutonium, which is extracted and reprocessed at a single central location while the reactor is running. There have been three commercial reprocessing factories in the United States, all of which have been dismantled. 

When spent fuel reprocessing was banned due to nuclear weapons non-proliferation concerns in 1977, during the Carter administration, the final facility was shut down.

The American Nuclear Society (ANS) filed a letter to the NRC in 2020, urging the regulatory body to reopen a proposed rulemaking on spent fuel reprocessing.

The organisation’s view is that “waste reduction is a fundamental aspect needed to assure the long-term sustainability of nuclear energy, both in the United States and worldwide,” according to the letter. 

“The lack of an efficient, technically robust, and technology-inclusive regulatory foundation for reprocessing and recycling is a barrier to innovation,” according to the letter.

This is because many advanced reactor designs currently in the development pipeline are designed to be able to use the energy that is latent in our current spent fuel reserves.

To put it another way, refusing to open up fuel reprocessing both wastes easily available energy and hinders innovation by failing to realise the full potential of emerging technology.

What countries reprocess their nuclear waste?

Several European nations, as well as Russia, China, and Japan, have procedures in place to reprocess used nuclear fuel, however many other governments have yet to recognise old fuel as a resource rather than a waste.

China

The China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) is in charge of developing a deep geological deposit for spent CANDU fuel and high-level waste from used light water reactor reprocessing.

China’s technical-driven site selection process began in 1986 and centred on three possible areas in Gansu province’s Beishan region in northwest China. 

An Underground Research Laboratory was chosen to be built in one of the siting zones in 2016. The Underground Research Laboratory site has a good chance of becoming the repository’s final location. In 2020, a site will be chosen.

Germany

The Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) in Germany is in charge of ensuring the safety and protection of people and the environment from ionising and non-ionizing radiation-related harm. 

This includes radiation from medical diagnostics, mobile communications, and nuclear technologies, among other things.

Germany is looking for a location for a deep geological repository, and the method is laid out in the StandAG (Repository Site Selection Act). The implementing organisation is the Bundesgesellschaft für Endlagerung (BGE).

The BGE released an interim report on sub-areas in 2020 as part of the site selection process. The public is invited to participate in and assess the interim report, which began in October 2020.

Japan

The Nuclear Waste Management Organisation of Japan (NUMO) is in charge of ensuring the safe and long-term management of vitrified high-level and long-lived intermediate-level radioactive wastes from Japan’s nuclear fuel cycle (the latter is referred to as TRU waste in Japan). 

Relevant institutions, such as the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA), which has off-site underground research facilities in both crystalline and sedimentary rock, assist R&D for geological disposal of these wastes.

Since its inception in 2000, NUMO has promoted the siting process. Following the Great Tohoku earthquake and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, a number of conversations were made at the government level to rebuild the geological disposal programme.

In May 2015, the Basic Policy Plan was updated in accordance with the Designated Radioactive Waste Final Disposal Act. 

This includes a siting plan in which the Japanese government will take the lead in identifying “scientifically advantageous sites” to aid in the disposal of high-level radioactive and TRU waste. 

In addition, there is a strategy in place to educate regional residents and the Japanese public at large on the geological disposal scheme. 

In 2017, a complete geological map with exclusion zones was made available for public inspection and discussion. NUMO anticipates site selection in 2025, with repository operations beginning in 2035.

Conclusion

The United States does not have nuclear waste recycling waste. Some nations, notably France, have an extensive nuclear waste recycling program where they use the nuclear waste as well to generate electricity.

Nuclear power in the United States was designed to be a closed fuel cycle, with uranium being mined, refined, made into fuel, and then burnt by reactors to generate electricity. 

Currently, spent nuclear fuel is stored in “spent fuel pools” at all nuclear power reactors in the United States. These pools have steel liners and are composed of reinforced concrete that is several feet thick.

FAQs

Why is nuclear reprocessing illegal in the US?

On April 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order prohibiting the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors.

The main motivation for this approach was to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation by diverting plutonium from civilian fuel cycles, as well as to urge other countries to follow the United States’ lead.

Is nuclear waste really a problem?

Yes, nuclear waste is a problem. For tens of thousands of years, nuclear waste continues to be dangerous. This is definitely unusual, and it poses a significant risk to future generations.

Hazardous and toxic waste is produced by a variety of industries. Not just radioactive waste, but all hazardous waste must be handled securely.

Can nuclear waste be neutralised?

No, nuclear waste cannot be neutralised. Nuclear waste cannot be neutralised in the same way that radioactive decay cannot be stopped. If it can be neutralised in a chemical sense, there is still the question of radioactive decay to consider.

References

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