Where others see only radioactive waste, engineers at TVA and the Department of Energy envision another source of needed energy.
Most of the potential energy in the nuclear fuel used to generate nearly 30 percent of the electricity in the Tennessee Valley remains untapped in spent fuel pools or dry casks at the Sequoyah, Watts Bar and Browns Ferry nuclear plants, said Sherrell R. Greene, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s nuclear technology programs.
“We basically discard over 90 percent of the energy value that is still left in the fuel bundles after they are used,” Mr. Greene said. “This spent nuclear fuel is potentially a very valuable resource for our country.”
But figuring out how to recycle nuclear fuel safely at an economical cost remains a challenge, Mr. Greene concedes. Although other countries reprocess nuclear fuel, the United States abandoned the technology in 1977 to help curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons that use the plutonium generated in reprocessing fuel.
Critics of nuclear reprocessing complain such technologies are too expensive and create and disperse more dangerous materials than they recycle.
Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, grew up near the Nuclear Fuel Services’ reprocessing plant in western New York that operated from 1966 to 1972. She said cleaning up the plant’s radioactive wastes that could leak into the Great Lakes is projected to cost at least another $10 billion.
“Reprocessing creates more waste, and the fact that the Department of Energy is even considering repeating this mistake is very depressing,” she said.
CLOSING THE FUEL CYCLE
President George W. Bush pushed his Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative and joined the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership as a way for the United States to develop new and better technologies to reprocess nuclear fuel to reduce the volume of radioactive wastes and generate more energy. The Department of Energy announced in October it favored some type of nuclear fuel reprocessing, but agency officials did not choose among competing technologies.
Oak Ridge is among 13 sites being considered for a reprocessing facility where spent nuclear fuel from America’s 104 nuclear plants could be shipped. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory spent $92 million in fiscal 2008 on nuclear power research.
President-elect Barack Obama has not specified his plans for the global nuclear partnership. He said during his presidential campaign that he favors more nuclear power despite his opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada as a storage site for nuclear wastes.
Frank von Hippel, a former advisor to President Jimmy Carter who stopped previous reprocessing programs three decades ago, said he thinks the current partnership program will end in an Obama administration.
“The emphasis on the United States building a nuclear reprocessing facility should die, and I believe it will die under President Obama,” said Mr. von Hippel, co-director of the program on science and global security at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. “There is no urgent reason to do this and, for now, I believe we can safely store spent fuel in dry casks at the reactor sites until we have better and safer technologies.”
TVA, DOE PARTNERSHIP
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., a member of the House subcommittee on Energy and Water, said he favors nuclear reprocessing and thinks East Tennessee can play an important role in developing the technology at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Any reprocessed fuel could generate power for TVA at an existing plant or potentially at a proposed fast reactor plant on the Clinch River, the site of an abandoned DOE breeder reactor project from the 1970s, he said.
Rep. Wamp prefers any reprocessing facilities be built in either South Carolina or Idaho, rather than in Oak Ridge.
“If you really want to reduce our carbon footprint, the single greatest step is nuclear energy,” he said. “The only liability is what do we do with spent fuel. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory can demonstrate at the micro level the reprocessing of that fuel. TVA can demonstrate on the macro level how that can be done within an energy system.”
TVA and the Department of Energy signed a memorandum of understanding in April to work on the development and testing of new technologies.
Jack Bailey, a senior vice president of TVA and chairman of a Nuclear Energy Institute task force working on standards for a reprocessing demonstration project, said the industry is working toward a one-step licensing process for new plants similar to what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is using for new nuclear reactors.
Mr. Bailey said reprocessing nuclear fuel can reduce the volume and toxicity of spent nuclear fuel while recapturing more of its energy. Spent fuel from America’s nuclear plants now would fill a football field 10 yards deep, but it could be reduced to wastes filling only one end zone, he said.
“We’re not talking about a lot of volume, considering we’ve been producing nuclear power for more than 30 years,” he said. “But it could be a much smaller volume if we are able to reprocess the fuel.”
Mr. Bailey said the United States developed the technology to reprocess nuclear fuel back in the 1940s and 1950s, but it was commercialized by French and Japanese companies after the United States halted any reprocessing efforts to try controlling nuclear proliferation.
The United States halted such reprocessing because it created plutonium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons.
“The world is doing it without us and we can’t stop them, so we need to figure out the best way to do it and move that forward,” Mr. Bailey said. “Let’s not be a laggard; we need to be a leader.”
As a federal corporation, TVA uniquely is positioned to work with the Department of Energy on the project, Mr. Bailey said. The proposed fast reactor at Clinch River could be built and paid for by the DOE to use reprocessed fuel. But TVA might buy the power and operate the facility, he said.
Such proposed plants would generate about 350 megawatts each, or about one third the size of a nuclear reactor at Sequoyah or Watts Bar, officials said.
NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE
* Enrichment — The process of increasing the ratio of uranium-235 atoms to uranium-238 atoms to make a more stable mixture usable as nuclear fuel in atomic reactors
* Reprocessing — The process of separating the usable from the unusable constituents of spent nuclear fuel after the fuel pellets have been used in a reactor to generate heat and ultimately electricity.
* Waste storage — 57,380 metric tons of radioactive uranium from America’s 104 reactors primarily is stockpiled at the plants, either submerged in open pools of water or sealed in steel and concrete casks. DOE has designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a permanent waste repository and was to begin storing wastes there in 1998, but a series of legal challenges and environmental reviews have blocked such storage.
* At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Energy will conduct a hearing on nuclear fuel reprocessing alternatives for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership at the New Hope Center, 602 Scarboro Road, in Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge is one of 13 sites being considered for a GNEP facility, which could include a fuel recycling center, a fast reactor or a research center.
* At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Princeton Professor Frank von Hippel will speak on why he thinks nuclear reprocessing is too risky during a presentation at the University Center Auditorium at UT in Knoxville.
* Jan. 20 — President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn into office. The new administration is expected to begin considering options for nuclear waste storage and reprocessing.
* Early 2009 — Congress is expected to decide on a budget request of $302 million for the Department of Energy’s Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative for fiscal 2009 and considers research and operating budgets for nuclear fuel options for fiscal 2010.