U.S. To Bury Almost All Existing Used Nuclear Fuel; Recycling Deferred At Least 20 Years via Forbes

There’s little hope that the 70,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel dispersed across the United States will ever be recycled, according to a recent study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory—so nearly all existing waste will go into the earth.

In a study completed late last year, Oak Ridge officials determined that the U.S. is at least 20 years away from large-scale reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, if it decides to pursue such technologies. By then, they estimate, nuclear plants will have generated another 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel.
The United States long opposed the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel because of terrorism and proliferation concerns, but DOE began researching new reprocessing technologies in 2005, and the Obama Administration has remained open to new technologies.

In 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Congress “there is research that has to be done, again, because reprocessing has the potential for greatly reducing both the amount and lifetime of the waste and to extend the nuclear fuel.”

At the time—before meltdowns and hydrogen explosions damaged spent fuel pools at Fukushima—the U.S. appeared more open to recycling processes like those employed in France.

After Fukushima, The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, co-chaired by Chu, adopted more cautious language about recycling: “no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reactor and fuel cycle technology developments—including advances in reprocessing and recycling technologies—have the potential to fundamentally alter the waste management challenges the nation confronts over at least the next several decades, if not longer.”

But neither the Blue Ribbon report nor the administration’s response close the door to reprocessing, calling it “premature for the United States to commit, as a matter of policy, to ‘closing’ the nuclear fuel cycle given the large uncertainties that exist about the merits and commercial viability of different fuel cycle and technology options.”

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