Dear EarthTalk: why don't we reprocess and re-use our nuclear waste like France does? Would it be possible for us to start doing so?--Albert Jukowsky, Silver Spring, MD
Reprocessing nuclear waste to extract more energy from it, while expensive and controversial, is indeed to this day still practiced in France, the UK, Russia, India and Japan--but not in the United States, where it was invented. The process involves breaking down spent nuclear fuel chemically and recovering fissionable material for use in new fuels. Proponents tout the benefit of reducing the amount of nuclear waste, resulting in less highly radioactive material that needs to be stored safely.
Nuclear reprocessing was first developed in the U.S. as part of the World War II-era Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb. After the war, the embryonic nuclear power industry began work to reprocess its waste on a large scale to extend the useful life of uranium, a scarce resource at the time. But commercial reprocessing attempts faltered due to technical, economic and regulatory problems. Antinuclear sentiment and the fear of nuclear proliferation in the 1970s led President Jimmy Carter to terminate federal support for further development of commercial reprocessing. The military did continue to reprocess nuclear waste for defense purposes, though, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War made continuous ramping up of our nuclear arsenal unnecessary.
More recently, George W. Bush pushed a plan, the Global Nuclear Energy Project (GNEP), to promote the use of nuclear power and subsidize the development of a new generation of "proliferation-resistant" nuclear reprocessing technologies that could be rolled out to the commercial nuclear energy sector. Federal scientists came up with promising spins on reprocessing nuclear fuel while minimizing the resulting waste. But in June of 2009 the Obama administration cancelled GNEP, citing cost concerns.
Proponents of nuclear power--and of reprocessing in particular--were far...