Recyclingof Sorts

In this country, reprocessing is an even more awkwardly shaped football, a hotter potato politically, than a repository. Reprocessing was even illegal, banned in this country by legislation passed by the Carter administration in 1977. Although President Reagan subsequently repealed that act in 1981, reprocessing is still banned by political fiat. However, I am now convinced that this has to be the solution ultimately agreed upon.

How can I be so bold on this claim? First, other countries with extensive nuclear power operations, notably France, United Kingdom, and Japan, all operate reprocessing facilities to some degree. It's not like we're reinventing the wheel or anything; reprocessing is a form of recycling. I freely acknowledge most people who feel good about recycling their bottles and cans do not feel good about reprocessing nuclear fuel. However, for the most part, they don't realize that we already reprocess significant amounts of nuclear material.

Second, the existing storage ponds usually require a separate permit. Because the industry fully expected a "permanent solution" for their nuclear fuel rods, these storage ponds are permitted for a defined length of time, and have only so much capacity. Time and space are running out. Operation of the existing plants is jeopardized if a permanent solution isn't agreed upon soon. The last thing nuclear utilities want is a drawn out, public hearing about these storage ponds that most people don't even realize exist.

Third, I think the industry has quietly given up on Yucca Mountain. When I attend nuclear power conferences today, the subject is not discussed in the same way it was five years ago. In the past, industry's leaders and policy shapers in Washington would beat the gavel on the desk and say, in effect, "Bring me the head of Harry Reid." They rallied to bully Congress and the president into meeting their obligations. And why not? The federal government made a promise. Well, politicians promise many things and deliver few of them. Today, long-term waste management is a giant lurking in the corner. It looms over the future of the industry, but no one seems willing to confront it, at least not overtly.

The fact is, the industry has no choice but to "close the fuel cycle," at least in my humble opinion. If it becomes increasingly untenable to store onsite temporarily, and a long-term site isn't in the cards, what are we going to do? We can't exactly put it all on a rocket and send out to outer space. (Although people have thought of that!) I mean, we could, but what if a mishap occurs and it falls back to Earth?

So what is reprocessing and why is it so scary? It goes back to that nuclear power-nuclear bomb connection. It's pretty easy to reprocess nuclear fuel rods into bomb material. But the reverse is true as well. And that brings me to an interesting irony.

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