March 16, 2009

The Obama administration plans to cut all but the most rudimentary funding to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and be content to allow spent fuel rods to sit in storage pools and dry casks at reactor sites while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal.

So is this really the death knell for nuclear power?  Not at all, says author William Tucker.  The repository at Yucca Mountain was only made necessary by our failure to understand a fundamental fact about nuclear power: There is no such thing as nuclear waste.


  • Ninety-five percent of a spent fuel rod is plain old Uranium-238, the nonfissionable variety that exists in granite tabletops, stone buildings and the coal burned in coal plants to generate electricity.
  • U-238 is 1 percent of the earth's crust; it could be put right back in the ground where it came from.
  • Of the remaining 5 percent of a rod, one-fifth is fissionable U-235 -- which can be recycled as fuel; another one-fifth is plutonium, also recyclable as fuel.
  • Much of the remaining three-fifths has important uses as medical and industrial isotopes.
  • Forty percent of all medical procedures in this country now involve some form of radioactive isotope, and nuclear medicine is a $4 billion business.
  • Unfortunately, we must import all our tracer material from Canada, because all of our isotopes have been headed for Yucca Mountain.

What remains after all this material has been extracted from spent fuel rods are some isotopes for which no important uses have yet been found, but which can be stored for future retrieval. France, which completely reprocesses its recyclable material, stores all the unused remains -- from 30 years of generating 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy -- beneath the floor of a single room at La Hague.

So shed no tears for Yucca Mountain, says Tucker.  Instead of ending the nuclear revival, it gives us the chance to correct a historical mistake and follow France's lead in developing complete reprocessing for nuclear material.

Source: William Tucker, "There Is No Such Thing as Nuclear Waste," Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2009.

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