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Why Doesn’t the U.S. Reprocess Nuclear Fuel?


Spencer Toohill


Introduction

President Jimmy Carter’s decision to terminate reprocessing in the United States nuclear fuel cycle was a mistake. If the U.S. wishes to compete at the forefront of addressing climate change, nonproliferation, and nuclear waste then it must execute all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. Therefore, this article will unpack the technical scope of reprocessing, highlight Jimmy Carter’s policy on reprocessing, and analyze today’s international implications. The article will then offer policy recommendations aimed at encouraging the incorporation of reprocessing back into the U.S. nuclear fuel cycle.


Let’s Get Technical

Reprocessing refers to the chemical separation of fissionable uranium and plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel. Instead of storing spent nuclear fuel in a once-through fuel cycle, another option is to reprocess the used fuel. In this “twice-through” or “closed” nuclear fuel cycle, reprocessing specifically refers to separating plutonium and uranium from spent fuel to extract more usable energy. This should not be confused with recycling or using reprocessed material to create new fuels for commercial reactors. All commercial reprocessing plants use the well-proven method PUREX (plutonium uranium extraction), which separates uranium and plutonium very effectively. This involves dissolving the fuel elements in concentrated nitric acid. Chemical separation of uranium and plutonium is then undertaken by solvent extraction steps. The plutonium and uranium can then be returned to the input side of the cycle; the uranium to the conversion plant before the re-enrichment process, and the plutonium to MOX (mixed oxide) fuel fabrication.


The Manhattan Project developed reprocessing technology while building the first atomic bomb starting in 1942. With the development of commercial nuclear power after World War II, reprocessing was considered crucial because of the perceived scarcity of uranium. Breeder reactor technology, which transmutes non-fissionable uranium into fissionable plutonium, was envisioned as a promising solution to extending the nuclear fuel supply. However, commercial reprocessing attempts encountered technical, economic, and regulatory problems. In response to these challenges and to the overwhelming concern that reprocessing contributed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, President Carter terminated federal support for commercial reprocessing in 1977.


Terminator

April 1977 marked a major shift in American nuclear energy policy. President Carter ended government support to produce plutonium and called on other nations to join the U.S. in halting the spread of the element during reprocessing. This decision was based primarily on the concern that the plutonium created in reprocessing – which can be used to build nuclear weapons – would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Carter sought agreements with foreign governments to limit the number of countries with access to plutonium. Specifically, Carter said that the United States would “defer indefinitely the commercial reprocessing and recycling of the plutonium that is found in spent fuel from conventional nuclear uranium-burning power plants.”


As such, in 1977, The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued an order terminating the proceedings on the Generic Environmental Statement on Mixed Oxide Fuel and most license proceedings relating to plutonium recycling. The following year, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to establish export licensing criteria that govern peaceful nuclear exports by the United States, including a requirement of prior U.S. approval for reprocessing and a guarantee that no material re-transferred will be reprocessed without U.S. consent. Additionally, Carter’s veto of the Energy Research and Development Administration’s (ERDA) Authorization Act of 1978 prevented the legislative authorization necessary for constructing a breeder reactor and a reprocessing facility.[i]


The theoretical possibility of proliferation was enough to drive their thinking to the conclusion that separated plutonium had to be eliminated. Nuclear experts generally took the position that several more attractive routes to nuclear weapons existed and that these were the avenues that called for concern and action. But other voices entered the top-level debate. Although eliminating reprocessing would impact only one possible proliferation route, and others were easier to conceal, cheaper, and more reliable, the Carter administration remained undeterred in their final policy choice. U.S. policymakers failed to discern between the different types of threats: nations outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty or suspected of undermining it, “rogue states” (i.e., North Korea), and subnational or terrorist groups.


In 1981, President Ronald Reagan announced he was, “lifting the indefinite ban which previous administrations placed on commercial reprocessing activities in the United States.” But, the damage was done, and high costs have prevented reprocessing facilities from opening since. Carter’s rigid policy carried serious risks of greater long-term energy dependence on fossil fuels while America's technological lead, influence, and credibility in nuclear energy were scarred. President Carter was seeking a single, comprehensive policy that could solve all potential problems. However, history suggests that the issue is more complex than the administration recognized. The uncertainty surrounding the future of reprocessing tarnished further prospects for private investments in the nuclear fuel cycle. Today, all U.S. spent fuel remains in storage and the United States faces growing problems in the nuclear industry.


International Implications

While the U.S. has stalled, other countries have advanced their nuclear capabilities. Reprocessing creates both reusable nuclear materials and a small amount of highly concentrated waste, benefits that foreign countries have capitalized on. Several European countries, as well as Russia, China, and Japan, have policies to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. For countries with a limited amount of naturally occurring uranium, such as Japan, reprocessing is an integral part of the nuclear fuel cycle. Reprocessing extends the life of available uranium and, in some countries, is seen as a very efficient use of energy.


Reprocessing is an effective way to significantly reduce the amount of waste for disposal, addressing concerns about the large amount of spent fuel produced by nuclear reactors. With 58 nuclear power reactors producing nearly 72% of France’s electricity (as of 2018), France is among the countries with the highest share of nuclear power in its energy production landscape. At the same time, France’s nuclear industry is also responsible for producing a significant amount of spent fuel and radioactive waste. French experts contend that the strength of France’s national spent fuel policy, in addition to tight legislation and a strong regulatory body, can be attributed to the standardization of its nuclear capabilities and the policy of recycling its spent fuel. This leads to an efficient and secure supply and a reduced burden of radioactive waste.


China has watched the West capitalize on the benefits of reprocessing and is now developing advanced fast reactors and reprocessing facilities as it seeks to reduce dependency on coal. Establishing significant reprocessing capacity is seen as vital both for the management of its used fuel and as a service export in connection with selling reactors overseas for Chinese experts. A demonstration fuel reprocessing plant, with a capacity of 200 tonnes of used fuel per year, is expected to start operation in 2025 in the Gansu province. A large (800 t/yr) commercial reprocessing plant is planned to follow and begin operation in about 2025, using the PUREX process to recover uranium and plutonium.


Rita Baranwal, the top U.S. Energy Department official on nuclear power, has said it is a “shame” to permanently dispose of nuclear waste and that the U.S. should look at reprocessing and potentially exporting nuclear waste to countries that reprocess. Maria Korsnick, the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said the nuclear power industry is eager to work with the current administration on energy issues including nuclear waste. The move toward reprocessing would help the United States compete with Russia and China, meanwhile, France has demonstrated it can be done safely. Korsnick said, “These are all conversations that we would have to step through as we design our final solution” and continued, “I’m confident that we have the technological expertise to do this well.”


Policy Recommendations:

  1. By March 1st, 2024, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s leadership team (specifically Director Stephen Streiffer, Deputy for Science and Technology Susan Hubbard, and Chief of Staff Lindsey Twardy) should cultivate a 10-year plan to reimplement reprocessing into the U.S. nuclear fuel cycle and propose such plan to Deputy Secretary of Energy, David M. Turk.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is the world’s premier research institution. A 10-year plan by ORNL would signal motivation and commitment from the National Labs toward spearheading the revival of U.S. reprocessing. Without this detailed plan, the rationale behind why the U.S. should restore reprocessing will not be enough to drive policymakers.

  1. In coordination with ORNL, Argonne National Laboratory Director, Paul Kearns, must draft and pitch (1) a plan to train personnel and (2) to construct a reprocessing facility at Argonne to Under Secretary for Science and Innovation Dr. Geri Richmond by June 15th, 2024.

Drawing from ORNL’s 10-year plan, Argonne should be the first laboratory to implement a reprocessing facility as it was the first national laboratory tasked with the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This history of expertise posits Argonne with unique scientific capabilities beyond the scope of academic and industrial institutions to take charge in the preliminary steps in restoring U.S. reprocessing capabilities.

  1. The National Security Council, particularly Lloyd Austin III, Antony Blinken, and Jennifer Granholm, needs to amend Part II and Part III of Biden’s National Security Strategy (NSS) by December 31st, 2024, to account for the inclusion of reprocessing in U.S. national strategy.

A revision to the NSS would signal to U.S. policymakers, the U.S. public, and the rest of the world that the U.S. is confident in its nuclear fuel cycle. This commitment from top U.S. national security officials would also alert the industry that the government is dedicated to reinvesting in reprocessing. However, this plan needs to be carefully crafted to show respect to the NPT, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the other nuclear-related treaties while simultaneously communicating how the U.S. must exercise each step of the nuclear fuel cycle to secure national security initiatives.


Conclusion

The decision to terminate reprocessing in the U.S. nuclear fuel cycle created unprecedented consequences. Now, the U.S. faces key international and environmental issues without the technological infrastructure to reimplement reprocessing. If left unchecked, the U.S. will continue to lose technological credibility in the nuclear sector and surrender influence with our allies and adversaries.

 

[i] J. Michael Martinez, The Journal of Policy History, “The Carter Administration and the Evolution of American Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy, 1977 — 1981,” vol. 14, no. 3, 2002

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