In decades to come, scholars may well puzzle on America’s attitude to nuclear energy. We love our nuclear defense capacity: its weapons, its submarines, and its aircraft carriers. But we have a kind of national anxiety about the use of the same science, under the most controlled conditions, to make scads of electricity.
Equally perplexing is our duality of opinion about nuclear waste. At every turn, those who dislike nuclear power -- often with pathological disaffection -- raise the issue of nuclear waste as a reason to give up on nuclear power. However, they do not have the temerity to suggest that we abandon nuclear aircraft carriers, subs, and even weapons.
The point is that whatever happens to the faltering nuclear power program in the United States, it will have nuclear waste aplenty -- in addition to the waste that already exists – from the 100 civil reactors now in operation, and all of the military applications.
One step toward reducing nuclear waste is well underway here in France; in fact, it has been part of the country’s nuclear program for 40 years. The French recycle the waste from many of their reactors, along with the waste from six other nations.
Using technology developed decades ago in the United States, the French recycle nuclear fuel cores in a production chain that begins at the La Hague plant in Normandy – the northwestern region known for its orchards and Calvados, an apple brandy -- and ends at the Marcoule nuclear site in the southeast, near Avignon, on the banks of the Rhone -- famous for the vineyards that produce Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines.
When a nuclear power plant operates, it produces some plutonium, but only burns a small amount of valuable uranium 235, the fissile isotope at the heart of the nuclear power process. The French extract these fissile products at La Hague. Then they ship the plutonium to the Melox plant on the Marcoule site, where they are made into a new fuel for civil reactors. This fuel, which is made from plutonium oxide mixed with uranium oxide, is known as MOX.
The United States was set to lead the world in nuclear waste recycling when President Jimmy Carter pulled the plug in the 70s; he believed it would lead to nuclear proliferation. France forged ahead, and now China is going to do likewise in a major way.
The United States may not be as enthusiastic about burning plutonium from civil nuclear reactors, but it is, or was, building a state-of-the-art facility near Aiken, S.C., to make MOX, in order to burn up plutonium from disassembled nuclear weapons. In 2000, as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians, the United States committed to decommission many nuclear warheads, releasing 34 metric tons of plutonium, and to making this into MOX to be used in civil reactors. The Russians pledged to burn up in their reactors an equivalent amount of plutonium from weapons once aimed at the United States.
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Now the Department of Energy wants to put the 60-percent-complete Aiken facility into a kind of limbo that it describes as “cold standby.” Contractors fear this is the beginning of the end of the project, and that it will neither be revived nor will the supply chain be there to go on with it in the future. The department only requested enough money in the 2015 budget for the cold standby, not for the completion of the facility. So far, $3.9 billion has been spent, and the project is an important employer in South Carolina.
Congress, mindful that the Obama administration did considerable damage to the concept of safekeeping used nuclear fuel when it abandoned the $18-billion Yucca Mountain, Nev., waste repository as it was about to open, wants none of this. Used-fuel cores are piling up at civil reactors, their future uncertain. So Congress, on a bipartisan basis, is seeking to put the funds for the South Carolina facility back into the budget.
The House and Senate have voted to do this. The message is clear: Not again, Mr. President.
No word from the White House.
Here in France, they are hoping that the lessons learned from burning plutonium will evolve into even more elegant solutions to the nuclear waste problem. The one certain thing is that nuclear waste will keep coming, and the administration has so far frustrated efforts to deal with it.
By Llewellyn King