By Georgia PSC Commissioner Tim Echols –
Speculation abounds about new President Donald Trump’s posture towards nuclear energy in general. Much of this may rest with Secretary of Energy-designate Rick Perry– and most nuclear enthusiasts I know are thrilled by this selection.
What might we see? America’s aging nuclear arsenal may get refreshed. The completion of the Yucca Mountain waste disposal site will probably resume. Ancillary projects like the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) facility currently under construction with reluctant support from the Department of Energy will probably get accelerated. And nuclear reprocessing of spent commercial fuel may get a fresh look.
Let’s talk about that last possibility— reprocessing, or closing the fuel cycle. Without the U.S. modifying its waste policy, the industry will never be sustainable. We have more than 70,000 tons of used fuel stored at more than 75 sites in 33 states, and the 98 U.S. commercial reactors produce about 2,000 additional tons of used fuel each year. Because we don’t reprocess this nuclear material, it would take nine Yucca Mountain repositories by the turn of the next century to house all the used fuel being produced. Like I said, it is not sustainable.
Getting one Yucca has proved daunting, let alone nine. In the meantime, dozens of states like Georgia and South Carolina spend hundreds of millions of dollars to let the material sit in highly engineered casks and pools at plant sites. These must be replaced every 100 years – for about 1 million years.
Starting in 1990, the French did what the United States backed away from – they built a commercial recycling plant for used nuclear fuel. The president of France’s Areva US operations, Gary M. Mignogna, explains it like this: “It’s a travesty to leave this waste to future generations when we can be extracting more energy from it now and reducing the toxicity from 10,000 years to 100 years.”
He should know because the French took the uranium-filled fuel rods and figured out how to safely reuse 96 percent of the material. By separating the uranium and plutonium from the fission products, they take advantage of all the energy left in the material.
More importantly, they turn the remaining 4 percent of waste into an inert glass product that requires minimum security and safeguard protocols. If we did that here in the United States, it would significantly reduce potential waste going into a Yucca Mountain and extend the facility’s life. We use the same recycling concept to extend landfill life all over Georgia.
How is it that the U.S. would not want to do the same? Georgia Tech Professor of Nuclear Engineering Nolan E. Hertel, a renowned expert, notes that one result of the ban on nuclear recycling by President Jimmy Carter– meant to prevent nuclear proliferation– is more than 2,400 tons of nuclear waste being stored on-site in Georgia.
So the time has come for the nuclear-energy industry to recycle and make the electricity it generates even more sustainable. Trump and Perry may be the leaders who can pull this off.
Here is how we can do it.
First, let’s recognize the energy value of the used nuclear fuel we currently discard. Did you know that our 70,000 tons of used fuel contains roughly enough energy to power every household in America for 12 years?
“Valuing used fuel against the cost of permanent burial is a calculation best done by the companies that provide fuel management services,” said Jack Spencer, of the Heritage Foundation. “Right now, utilities have no incentive to do anything but store it.” Heritage has a great plan for privatizing the nuclear waste industry, but it needs a Congressional champion.
This would require Congress to act, and Areva’s Mignogna suggests this course of federal action: “As DOE provides funds for development of the next generation of reactors, we need to encourage them to support technologies that either burn most of the actinides during the normal fuel burn or that can burn nearly all of the actinides from recycled MOX fuel.”
With the Republicans in charge, there may be a two-year window to get this done on Capitol Hill.
And that is why I am asking the Georgia Power Co. to make sure Plant Vogtle units 3 & 4 can burn fuel being fabricated just across the river at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina–if the MOX project, or Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility is ever finished.
This plant, modeled after processes currently used in France at La Hague and MELOX, will permanently change surplus nuclear warhead material into commercial nuclear reactor fuel.
The MOX Project facility is 70 percent complete, but haphazard funding from Washington is dragging out the project. That may be about to change. And recycling used nuclear fuel makes sense in the long run. This recycled material will be available at a discounted price compared to fresh uranium fuel the utilities currently buy.
Ratepayers and shareholders will benefit from cheaper reactor fuel, especially in times like today when low natural-gas prices are creating a financial disadvantage for nuclear plants. The cost of nine Yucca Mountains will be astronomical, and recycling drastically reduces storage for the remaining 4 percent of used fuel.
Let’s do the math. If we continue to close coal plants, which operate around the clock regardless of weather, and we continue to add intermittent energy sources like wind and solar and their natural-gas backup generators, how are we going to reduce our net CO2 emissions and provide the reliability that businesses and ratepayers expect? Nuclear energy is the answer, and recycling makes it greener and sustainable.
Tim Echols serves on the Georgia Public Service Commission.