The US has yet to figure out how to dispose of its nuclear waste. Proposals for a national disposal site, prospectively at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, face stiff political opposition. With these plans on hold, it seems obvious that the nation should not be doing anything to add to the billions of pounds of radioactive materials in need of safe disposal. Yet that's just what the Department of Energy (DOE) has in mind.
DOE has embarked on a program to restart the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel at Savannah River, S.C., a site that for decades was devoted to the production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. That production was shut down with the end of the cold war, but its legacy is a vast, costly waste problem the federal government has only begun to tackle.
Reprocessing was resumed at Savannah River in 1996 to take care of some spent fuel that had been left in the reprocessing "canyons" and was corroding. Having fired the plant up again, however, DOE and the operator of Savannah River, Westinghouse, are inclined to keep it running, and have in mind reprocessing fuel tubes from foreign reactors too. DOE also is hoping to continue a newer reprocessing project at national laboratories in Idaho and Illinois. The technique used there, "pyroprocessing," is thought to be more advanced, but it too will contribute to the waste problem.
There might be economic and even environmental arguments for pursuing these projects, but they don't wash. The economics are local. South Carolina's lawmakers, like those in other parts of the country, don't want to see jobs lost. They've fought to keep Savannah River open. Any environmental pleas for reprocessing as a means of recycling nuclear materials to produce fresh nuclear fuel are overwhelmed by the additional radioactive wastes generated by the process.
DOE also wants to start up a project to turn the military's excess plutonium into fuel pellets to be used in commercial nuclear power plants. These MOX (mixed oxide) pellets would represent the first commercial use of plutonium by the US - and end the longstanding policy of keeping that volatile, weapons-ready material under tightest control. Nuclear weapons experts in the government oppose the MOX project, recognizing that it presents an enhanced danger of plutonium getting into the wrong hands and a terrible example for other nations, notably Russia, with excess supplies of the material.
A better way to deal with the oversupply of plutonium is to ready it for long-term safe storage by conversion into a glassy, immobile state through a process called vitrification.
DOE should stop coming up with ways to keep its nuclear operations going and get on with the task of cleaning up after them.