July 12, 2008

Nuclear Power, Recycling Needed Now

By Michael L. Green

AT A time when America is paying $1.5 billion a day for imported oil, it seems incomprehensible that something isn't being done to remove the albatross around the neck of nuclear power.

For that we can thank Congress. It is supporting renewable energy, everything from solar and wind power to biofuels and other green sources. While renewable sources might help meet peak energy demand, they simply can't provide the "base-load" electricity that our nation needs to drive the economy.

Whether or not we like nuclear power, the reality is that, next to coal, no other source of electricity is more important. Nuclear plants account for 20 percent of the nation's electricity, operating safely and dependably, free of the whims of Middle East sheiks and corrupt Russians.

Yet U.S. nuclear utilities do not have access to a critically important technology that is available to their counterparts in France, Great Britain, Japan and other countries. The irony is the technology - known as nuclear recycling, or reprocessing - was developed in the United States a half-century ago but banned by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, on grounds that it could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Often mistaken for nuclear waste, spent fuel possesses uranium and plutonium that can be chemically recycled into new nuclear fuel to produce electricity. Currently there is 55,000 metric tons of spent fuel stored at nuclear plant sites around the country, awaiting shipment to a central repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

If the spent fuel were to be saved for recycling, it could provide electricity for decades, extend uranium supplies and significantly reduce the amount of nuclear waste. Experts say recycling in the United States poses no proliferation risk, and its revival would enable our country to make good use of a valuable energy resource. Essentially, the only nuclear waste that would need to be shipped to the Nevada repository for permanent disposal is a relatively small amount of spent fuel that can't be recycled.

President Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership - known as GNEP - calls for construction of a recycling plant that would be ready by 2020. GNEP's goal is to encourage the use of nuclear power worldwide, while preventing the loss or misuse of plutonium. The idea is to persuade countries that are planning to build their first nuclear power plants to forego recycling and instead obtain reactor fuel from the United States or a few other countries that already possess recycling capability.

The administration has asked Congress for funds needed to establish a nuclear recycling center, which would include the recycling plant, an advanced "fast reactor" capable of using the recycled fuel and a research facility to develop new technologies for recycling that would make it more difficult to convert plutonium into a bomb. But Congress has provided little money for GNEP. Some members of the House and Senate are reluctant to acknowledge that nuclear non-proliferation safeguards are more likely to be observed by countries if they're given an opportunity to obtain nuclear fuel for electricity production.

Moreover, the failure to provide adequate funds for GNEP shows an ignorance of nuclear power's importance globally. The International Atomic Energy Agency forecasts as many as 1,000 nuclear plants operating by 2050, more than double the number today. Egypt, Vietnam, Malaysia and Argentina are among the countries planning to build nuclear plants.

How will they obtain nuclear fuel if it's not available from the United States and a few other countries with recycling capability? The short answer is they will develop their own capability. And the risk of plutonium diversion for weapons production will pose a serious threat to world peace. In all likelihood, Congress will stick its head in the sand, hoping that when it re-emerges solar energy will be there in abundance to meet our needs, confirmation that our energy policy borders on the irrational.

The energy problem is terribly serious. We can ill afford not to use sources of energy - primarily nuclear power and clean coal technology - which we know how to use and which, in combination, could satisfy our energy needs. To slough off the need for nuclear recycling because of the hope that solar or wind energy may eventually become important is a dangerous thing for our country and for the world.

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