06 October 2009

Reprocessing Nuclear Waste - How to Make a Bad Situation Worse

guest post by Dan Endreson, Minnesota Program Coordinator for Clean Water Action

One of the unfortunate consequences of using nuclear reactors to generate electricity is the toxic radioactive wastes and by-products. This waste is extremely hazardous and remains radioactive for hundreds of generations. In other words, if the ancient Egyptians had created nuclear reactors, their waste would remain radioactive to this day.

Here in Minnesota, the legislature has dealt with our nuclear waste problem by allowing nuclear facilities to store spent fuel waste in casks along the banks of the Mississippi River. These casks were meant to serve as a short term solution to nuclear waste storage while the federal government constructed a geological repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. As plans for opening Yucca Mountain have been eliminated, nuclear advocates claim they have found a new silver bullet to the waste problem – reprocessing spent fuel.

The idea behind reprocessing is that spent fuel can be enriched and used again in the nuclear fuel cycle. Nuclear advocates like to compare this to “recycling” and that reprocessing will decrease the levels of spent fuel waste. These claims are completely false.

Not only will reprocessing not solve the waste problem, it will actually make it worse. Reprocessing spent fuel involves treating the waste with nitric acid and other strong chemicals which creates huge volumes of liquid radioactive waste. The Department of Energy estimates that reprocessing spent fuel will result in a 6-fold increase in total waste volume compared to the direct disposal of spent fuel.[1]

Much like the spent fuel currently residing in Minnesota, no one has perfected a safe method for eliminating reprocessed waste. France and Britain, two of the leading reprocessing countries, have been discharging their liquid waste into the Atlantic Ocean, contaminating seafood all the way to the Arctic. Here in the United States, waste from reprocessing nuclear weapons during the Cold War continues to sit in leaky underground tanks that threaten our groundwater resources. The Department of Energy estimates it will cost over $100 billion to clean up the nearly 100 million gallons of high level reprocessing waste. Disposal of this waste may include burying waste-filled containers in a repository or by pouring the liquid waste into our rivers, lakes, and streams similar to the Europeans.

In addition to environmental concerns, reprocessing is also extremely costly and can contribute to nuclear proliferation. France spends about $1 billion extra per year on reprocessed fuel compared to conventional uranium fuel and the reprocessing process extracts plutonium, the same material used in nuclear weapons.[2]

As the years go by, the temporary waste facilities at Minnesota’s nuclear plants appear to become more and more permanent. In our rush to remove this waste, we must not act so hastily that we choose a solution that exacerbates the current environmental problems associated with nuclear reactors.

We urge our elected officials to reject any policy that leads the U.S. down the road of reprocessing of nuclear waste an increased stream of dangerous radioactive pollution.

[1] U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy, Draft Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, GNEP PEIS; DOE/EIS-0396, October 2008, links at http://nuclear.gov/peis.html; hereafter PEIS 2008, Table 4.8-6, p. 4-189. See thermal reactor recycle, Option 1. Comparable French data that separate reprocessing and reactor wastes are not readily available

[2] United States General Accounting Office, Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, “Nuclear Waste: Challenges to Achieving Potential Savings in DOE’s High-Level Waste Cleanup Program, GAO-03-593, June 2003


  1. But the US is seriously considering reprocessing.

    After 20 years of studying a possible site for a repository to hold nuclear waste, an advisory panel might decided to go a different route to handle the waste. Yucca Mountain in Nevada might no longer be a location for nuclear waste to go to. The advisory panel has turned their attention to the notion of reusing the fuel. I thought this was an interesting article because I feel like it shows a lack of urgency in the government and the panel in trying to solve the nuclear waste problem. I feel like a lot of things are proposed and then researched about for many, many years but then nothing is put into action. I know nuclear waste and what to do with it is a complex issue but I think it's imperative that something is done because it poses a threat to current and future generations of people.

  2. I hope the Obama Administration will continue to recognize that reprocessing and additional nuclear power plants (one in the same) is not the safest solution for our energy problem. We cannot trade reducing carbon emissions for creating more nuclear waste, which we have no way of treating or storing safely.
    And of course, no one wants it in their backyard, so what will happen to it?