Monday, December 31, 2007

Throwing away perfectly good fuel

I couldn't believe it when I found out some time ago, but it's true - most of the nuclear "waste" from nuclear power plants is actually unburned fuel! Check this out:

To create power, reactor fuel must contain 3-5 percent burnable uranium. Once the burnable uranium falls below that level, the fuel must be replaced. But this “spent” fuel generally retains about 95 percent of the uranium it started with, and that uranium can be recycled.

Over the past four decades, America’s reactors have produced about 56,000 tons of used fuel. That “waste” contains roughly enough energy to power every U.S. household for 12 years. And it’s just sitting there, piling up at power plant storage facilities. Talk about waste!

The sad thing is, the United States developed the technology to recapture that energy decades ago, then barred its commercial use in 1977. We have practiced a virtual moratorium ever since.

Other countries have not taken such a backward approach to nuclear power. France, whose 59 reactors generate 80 percent of its electricity, has safely recycled nuclear fuel for decades. They turned to nuclear power in the 1970s to limit their dependence on foreign energy. And, from the beginning, they made recycling used fuel central to their program.

Anti-nuclear fear mongering has proved baseless. The French have recycled fuel like this for 30 years without incident: no terrorist attack, no bad guys stealing uranium, no contribution toward nuclear weapons proliferaton, and no accidental explosions.

France meets all of its recycling needs with one facility. Indeed, domestic French reprocessing only takes about half of La Hague’s capacity. The other half is used to recycle other countries’ spent nuclear fuel.

Since beginning operations, France’s La Hague plant has safely processed over 23,000 tones of used fuel—enough to power France for fourteen years.