Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Nuclear Waste, Or Is It?

Late last year I commented on the delays affecting approval of the proposed nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. After originally ascribing the problem to politics, I came around to the idea that waiting wasn't the worst thing we could do. Now I've read this article by a regular reader and commenter on this blog who has an even better idea than indefinitely prolonged temporary storage: recycling the nuclear waste back into fuel. With nuclear power looking more attractive than it has for decades, due to its energy security and greenhouse gas benefits, viewing this "mountain of waste" as a useful resource rather than a disposal problem seems like a timely shift of perspective.

Based on nuclear industry expertise, Mr. Somsel's article speaks for itself. There isn't much I'd add, other than in two specific areas. First, a change like this would require significant public relations and public education. How many Americans remember enough high school chemistry to understand that the elements (isotopes) with the shortest half-lives are the most radioactive and thus most hazardous? At the same time, long half-life elements such as uranium and plutonium present both the biggest long-term storage challenge, and the greatest potential for recycling into valuable fuel.

The other issue relates to nuclear weapons proliferation. Mr. Somsel rightly identifies this as a primary reason that the long-term storage strategy was chosen over recycling in the past. As much as anything, this has been a gesture of consistency in our approach to nascent civilian nuclear programs around the world. But as the current diplomatic wrangling with Iran and North Korea suggests, the global non-proliferation model is in flux. Denying ourselves the ability to reuse spent fuel won't be sufficient to keep bomb-quality material out of the wrong hands. Making smart use of this material, on the other hand, could be part of the solution to taming our insatiable appetite for imported energy and contribute to global stability.

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