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Reprocessing: The Mythical Silver Bullet

The United States continues to grapple with the nuclear waste quandary that exposes one of the most fundamental problems of nuclear power – what do you do with the waste?

There is increasing talk about spent-fuel reprocessing as the silver bullet for this sticky situation. However, there are many reasons that we should pause before biting the bullet on this one.

The evidence is clear: reprocessing nuclear waste will not alleviate the need for a geologic (Yucca Mountain-type) repository for nuclear waste. Reprocessing creates a larger volume of nuclear waste because it dilutes radioactive materials; it does not make them disappear. In an analysis of nuclear power, an MIT study that supports the development of new nuclear power plants concluded that, “the incremental costs and short-term safety and environmental risks of reprocessing would have to be greatly reduced in order for reprocessing to become the preferred nuclear waste management solution."1


1 MIT Study Group, The Future of Nuclear Power, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003.

For more on reprocessing, click below:

How it works

Reprocessing is simply a process to repackage nuclear waste--not eliminate it. The idea is to reuse some of the energy in a fuel rod after it has gone through its first life cycle. Once the uranium-filled fuel rods that create the nuclear power plant's nuclear reaction are “spent,” they are cooled for a few years at the reactor site and are then transported to a reprocessing plant. At the reprocessing facility the fuel rods are cut up and dissolved in a bath of nitric acid. Uranium and plutonium are then separated out from the other highly radioactive wastes in the nitric acid solution. The remaining solution, which is still high-level waste, is typically blended with glass, a process known as vitrification, and must ultimately be stored in a deep geologic repository, like the one proposed at Yucca Mountain.

In theory, the extracted uranium, which comprises 95% of the volume of the spent fuel rods, could be refabricated into nuclear fuel rods. However, in practice, no significant amount of this reprocessed uranium is reused in countries that currently reprocess, including France and Britain. This is because the extracted uranium is contaminated with highly radioactive and hazardous fission products. The process of turning this contaminated uranium into nuclear fuel rods is prohibitively dangerous for workers and would be extremely expensive. The result is that most of the radioactive materials from spent fuel rods are not reused, and must still go into a deep geologic repository.

The United States' only foray into reprocessing commercial nuclear waste was an environmental and economic diseaster. Between 1966 and 1972, the West Valley reprocessing facility, located in New York State, reprocessed only one-sixth of the spent fuel slated for processing while creating radioactive waste that is threatening evenutal leakage into Lake Erie. Thirty-three years after the facility's closre, taxpayers are still footing the $5.2 billion remediation tab. 1

1Department of Energy, West Valley Demonstration Project Draft Waste Management Environmental Impact Statement, May 2003.

Case Study: Britain's Sellafield Plant

England first began reprocessing commercial nuclear materials at the Sellafield site in 1964 and built a second plant at the same site in 1994.1 The facilities have long been plagued with technical problems, high costs, and public concerns about health and safety.2

One of the most contentious issues is the discharge of radioactive waste into the Irish Sea. Of the hodgepodge of radioactive isotopes released into the sea, plutonium and technetium-99 (Tc-99), which has a half-life of 213,000 years, have raised the greatest concern. Many along the Norwegian coast are particularly distressed that Tc-99 has affected Norway’s seaweed and lobster yield.3

A study funded by the British Department of Health, which examined more than 3,000 molars extracted from young teenagers across England, found plutonium in all the teeth sampled, including samples taken from as far away as Scotland and Northern Ireland. According to The Guardian, the British government admitted that the Sellafield site, “‘is a source of plutonium contamination’ across the country.”4 The study also showed that those living closer to the Sellafield plant had more than twice the amount of plutonium in their teeth than those living 140 miles away.

Major leaks on 2005 and 2007 have led to Sellafield shutting down its reprocessing facilities. It will now focus its attention on cleaning up the “radioactive legacy” of 50 years of nuclear power generation and waste reprocessing.5 According to the British Decommissioning Authority, the cleanup and decommissioning process will likely continue through 2130 and costs are estimated at £17-18 billion.6


1Sellafield Reprocessing Plant in Great Britain,” a working paper published by the Bellona Foundation in 2001. Available online at: http://www.bellona.no/en/energy/nuclear/sellafield/wp_5-2001/21736.html.
2 “Future of Sellafield plant in doubt,” BBC News, Published Aug 26, 2003.
3 “British government taken to international court over Sellafield,” reported by Erik Martiniussen in Bellona on June 10, 2003.
4“Plutonium from Sellafield in all children’s teeth: Government admits plant is the source of contamination but says risk is ‘minute,” reported by Antony Barnett, Observer. November 30, 2003.
“Sellafield’s Controversial History,” BBC News, April 1, 2005.
6“UK nuclear decommissioning efforts now answerable to Nuclear Decommissioning Authority,” reported by Charles Digges in Bellona on April 4, 2005.


Whats is GNEP?

During the last nuclear renaissance, the United States unsuccessfully attempted to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Instead of finding the silver bullet for nuclear waste, we shot ouselves in the foot by creating more waste, environmental and economic calamities. Like the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. The Bush Administration and his nuclear industry backers are seeking to do just that with their recently unveiled Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). But we won't be fooled into reprocessing again.

There are two primary components of the GNEP program: under the “G” provision of GNEP, the United States and other nuclear fuel “supplier” nations would aim to increase the use of nuclear power abroad by providing fresh nuclear fuel to other countries. The U.S. would then import the used, irradiated nuclear fuel and assume the liability for its disposal. The second and most dangerous component of the GNEP program concerns the resumption of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing (sometimes incorrectly referred to as “recycling”). Reprocessing is an extremely expensive and dangerous process scrapped by the Ford and Carter administrations because of serious technical, economic, environmental and national security failures.

Current reprocessing technology involves the separation of uranium, plutonium, and other fission products (i.e. shorter-lived, but extremely radioactive elements) to make new fuel for reactors. This process, which was initially created to help the United States produce plutonium for the nuclear bomb, is currently used by France, Britain, Russia, India and Japan. Wherever it has been used, it has been an unequivocal environmental disaster. Three of the most contaminated sites in the western hemisphere: Hanford, Washington, Idaho National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site, were home to reprocessing facilities and will be forever contaminated. It is also an economic boondoggle. The only attempt to commercialize reprocessing was conducted in West Valley, New York and after 6 years of technical failures, the site was scrapped leaving taxpayers with a multi-billion dollar bill. Furthermore, reprocessing creates stockpiles of weapons usable plutonium that can be easily converted to make bombs. There is enough plutonium sitting around the world today to make over 30,000 bombs!

<!--[if !supportLineBreakNewLine]--><!--[endif]--> These grim facts are not enough to sway the likes of this administration and EnergySolutions. They argue GNEP will reduce the amount of waste created AND that they can develop a “proliferation-resistant” reprocessing technology. They fail to mention, of course, that the “new” reprocessing technology is not new and is yet unproven.1 Not only that, GNEP will also rely up the existence of so-called “fast reactors” to burn plutonium and other long-lived waste products from irradiated fuel rods. Unfortunately, despite the $100 billion that has been spent in developing “burner” reactors on a global scale, no country has yet invented a commercially viable model.2

What does this mean for Utah?

In spite of the enormous technical, economic, environmental and national security concerns regarding reprocessing, the Department of Energy awarded nearly $10.5 million in January of this year to nine special interest groups to conduct siting studies for potential GNEP facilities. In a surprise to few, EnergySolutions was one of the awarded companies to receive taxpayer dollars to look into this reprocessing relapse. The company, having recently acquired the reprocessing technology used in Britain, touts itself as the only U.S.-owned firm that can deliver, “entire reprocessing facilities [and] treatment and disposition of all waste streams.”3

Sites under consideration for GNEP facilities
1. Atomic City, ID*
2.Barnwell, SC*
3. Hanford Site, WA
4. Hobbs, NM
5. Idaho National Laboratory, ID
6. Morris, IL
7. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, TN
8. Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, KY
9. Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, OH
10. Rosewell, NM*
11. Savannah River National Laboratory, SC
*Indicates EnergySolutions bid


A careful examination of their touted British-technology, however, reveals a troubling history of accidents, shutdowns, and cost-overruns.4 The simple fact is neither EnergySolutions, nor any other company should be involved in the re-consummation of a process that the U.S. rightly foreswore years ago. EnergySolutions’ actions send a clear and sharp message to Utahns: they not only want to be the nation’s nuclear waste dump but they also want to produce it themselves to ensure their business for years to come. Their self-fulfilling ways must be opposed at all costs.


In addition, the nuclear fuel cycle promoted by reprocessing harmfully impacts Utah. Uranium mining and milling bears a heavy toll on Utah's health and environment. Taxpayers have dolled out over $500 million in cleanup costs. Waste from reprocessing facilities could end up being dumped in Utah as well.

<!--[endif]-->1Frank von Hippel, “Managing Spent Fuel in the United State: The Illogic of Reprocessing,” International Panel on Fissile Materials, January, 2007, http://www.fissilematerials.org/ipfm/site_down/ipfmresearchreport03.pdf.

2Arjun Makhijani, “Chapter 2: A Brief History of Commercial Plutonium,” Plutonium End Game, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, January 2001, http://www.ieer.org/reports/pu/ch2.html.

3 EnergySolutions website, http://www.energysolutions.com/Government/gnep.php accessed 03/22/07.

4 Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plant Accident at Sellafield, UK,” http://www.armscontrolcenter.org/resources/20060428_repro_sellafield_factsheet.pdf. Accessed on 03/22/2007.


Security Risks

A particularly controversial aspect of nuclear fuel reprocessing is that one byproduct of the process is the creation of separated plutonium, which increases the risks of nuclear proliferation. There is enough plutonium sitting around the world today to make over 30,000 bombs. Adding credence to the concern that these materials could get into the hands of terrorist groups is the fact that a 2003 report found enough plutonium to make five nuclear bombs had gone missing from the Sellafield plant. In fact, auditors have regularly found plutonium missing from the plant, with 24.9kg missing in 1999, 5.6kg in 2001, and 19.1kg 2003, none of which has been accounted for.1 It only takes about 6kg to make a nuclear bomb

<!--[endif]-->1 “Enough plutonium for five bombs ‘missing’ at Sellafield” reported by Liam McDougall in The Sunday Herald. December 28, 2003.

Economics: Proposed Reprocessing in the U.S.

Even critics and advocates can agree that reprocessing, simply put, is prohibitively expensive. In order for reprocessing to be economically feasible, the price of uranium would have to increase from its current price of $32-$70/kg to $400/kg.1 If the U.S. were to require all nuclear power plants on-line today to reprocess spent fuel, roughly $2 billion each year would be added to the cost of nuclear-generated electricity – costs that would be passed on either to ratepayers or taxpayers.2

Reprocessing the United States' waste is estimated to cost over $100 billion. The Department of Energy has requested $405 million this year to begin a reprocessing program called GNEP.

<!--[if !supportFootnotes]--> <!--[endif]-->1“The Economics of Reprocessing in the United States,” Testimony of Dr. Richard K. Lester, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at MIT, before the House Subcommittee on Energy & Committee on Science. July 12, 2005.
2“Is U.S. Reprocessing Worth the Risk?” Steve Fetter and Frank N. von Hippel. Arms Control Today, September 2005.