NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Other Countries Recycle Nuclear "Waste" to Produce Electricity

November 28, 2001

Spent nuclear fuel rods from commercial and research reactors should not be viewed as "waste" to be entombed for millennia at the Yucca Mountain Repository, says the Nevada Policy Research Institute. Instead, the rods should be a commodity bought and sold in the marketplace.

The Department of Energy's long-term storage program is decades behind schedule, while other countries are using this clean-fuel source.

  • The reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is banned under an executive order issued in the 1970s by President Jimmy Carter -- however, both France and the United Kingdom are successfully reprocessing nuclear fuel.
  • In those countries, rods are treated through a chemical process and made into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, which is "burned" in nuclear reactors -- dramatically reducing both the volume and radioactivity of the final waste material.
  • A new nuclear power plant that uses only MOX fuel is to be constructed in Japan by 2007, according to Richard Rhodes and Denis Beller, writing in Foreign Affairs.
  • And Russia (which has been recycling fuel rods for 25 years) will soon begin importing 20,000 tons of used nuclear fuel from other countries to reprocess for use in commercial reactors.

Lifting the ban on reprocessing would not instantly create a domestic market, because uranium prices are relatively low today -- it now costs less per kilowatt to operate a nuclear power plant than any other kind. However, a growing share of the world's electricity comes from nuclear power and uranium's price is expected to rise.

Thus a better use for the nearly $10 billion left in the Nuclear Waste Fund, which is funding Yucca Mountain, would be to disperse it to the entities now holding used nuclear fuel in order to develop reprocessing plants and MOX reactors.

Source: D. Dowd Muska, "Spare the Rods: The Free-Market Alternative to the Yucca Mountain Repository," November 2001, Nevada Policy Research Institute, 2077 E. Sahara Avenue, Las Vegas, Nev. 89104, (702) 222-0642.

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