RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The Obama administration is promoting nuclear power, and that's complicated by the fact that it has also put an end to plans to bury nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
So a blue-ribbon committee is pondering what to do with the waste. One option they're considering is a process that would dramatically reduce its radioactive lifetime, as NPR's Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS: Less than one percent of spent reactor fuel is made up of radioactive elements that last hundreds of thousands of years.
And Sherrell Greene at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee says the technology to remove those troublesome elements from waste is as old as nuclear reactors themselves.
Mr. SHERRELL GREENE (Oak Ridge National Laboratory): So you're standing at the face of the X-10 graphite reactor, the world's first continuously operating reactor...
HARRIS: Greene points up at a 24-foot-tall graphite block that's dotted with holes about the size of corks. It looks nothing like a power reactor because it never was.
Instead, it was called an atomic pile. And back in the 1940s, the world's first nuclear engineers used long metal rods to slide slugs of uranium into the holes along the front face. Nuclear reactions inside the pile turned uranium into slugs to plutonium and a host of other radioactive elements.
Mr. GREENE: It's hard to see it, but the slugs would fall out the back and there's a trench. And the trench would you know, we see the transport trench right here, and it would be moved along to the reprocessing building.
HARRIS: Back in the 1940s, scientists here were reprocessing those slugs to get at the plutonium, to use it for nuclear weapons research.
These days nuclear power reactors also produced plutonium and similar elements. They're treated as waste, but technologists like Greene would like to extract those elements from the waste and reuse them as nuclear fuel. In the process, that would also keep those long-lasting radioactive materials out of nuclear waste dumps.
This is doable. Worldwide, about a quarter of spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed. But for reasons we'll get to in a few minutes, the United States stopped pursuing this technology in the 1970s. Now with a possible nuclear energy renaissance on the horizon, there's interest once again.
Not far from the historic first reactor, Greene and his colleagues at Oak Ridge are taking a fresh look at reprocessing.
(Soundbite of door opening)
HARRIS: Building 7920 has a simple white cinder-block exterior. Inside this decades-old facility are some relics of the nuclear heyday. Today they're being used to manipulate and reprocess samples of waste from nuclear reactors.
At the core of this building, technicians peer through 4 1/2-foot thick windows made of glass and mineral oil: radiation shielding.
Mr. JASON COOK (Technician): You want to grab that one. Put it up on the rack.
HARRIS: They use mechanical arms to manipulate highly radioactive material inside the hot cell.
You just dumped out a buck full of tools, it looks like.
Mr. COOK: Unfortunately, they're not what we're looking for.
HARRIS: Jason Cook adroitly sorts through the tools with the mechanical arm. It seems awkward, but he says after six years of practice it's pretty much second nature to him.
Ever want to just reach in there with your arm?
Mr. COOK: No. You get used to them. It's not as bad as it looks.
HARRIS: This setup looks practically like a museum piece. But researchers here have recently used these hot cells to manufacture a sample of new reactor fuel, made from spent nuclear waste. Greene explains it contains plutonium and other long-lived radioactive elements.
The idea is to send this material back into a reactor. There it will generate more energy. And in the process, the long-lived radioactive materials will break down into elements with much shorter lifetimes.
The resulting experimental fuel pellets look like short bullets.
Mr. GREENE: So these are the first pellets that have been produced from commercial nuclear fuel, in which we did not produce any pure separated plutonium in the process.
Mr. COOK: This material in here had been in a nuclear reactor and it's now safe enough that basically you can hold it in your hand in a glass vile, in a plastic bag. But...
Mr. GREENE: Everything's not as dangerous as it looks.
HARRIS: Greene says if waste weren't such a hot-button issue, nuclear power would actually look pretty attractive. One person's lifetime nuclear waste would fit in a Coke can which is tiny compared with the many tons of carbon dioxide the average American dumps into the atmosphere each and every year. And on a national scale, Greene says it's not as much as you might think.
Mr. GREENE: If I put in one place all of the spent fuel generated by all of the commercial nuclear power plants in the United States throughout history, all of that spent fuel could be fit into a pool of water 25 feet deep and 300 feet on the side.
HARRIS: The size of a football field. Right now, that waste needs to remain safe and secure for a million years which is one reason even putting it in Yucca Mountain seemed like less than a sure thing. Reprocessing the waste wouldn't reduce its volume but it would dramatically reduce its radioactive lifetime. And that could make waste storage a much easier problem to solve.
So why hasn't the United State adopted this technology? Well, it turns out if you think of it in terms of a way to make more nuclear fuel, that's a very expensive way to go. Frank von Hippel at Princeton, a longtime skeptic of nuclear fuel reprocessing, says it's likely to remain a very expensive substitute for starting from scratch with uranium ore.
Professor FRANK VON HIPPEL (Princeton University): The price would have to go up about 10 times for it to be economically justifiable to reprocess.
HARRIS: Von Hippel's main concern, though, is that this technology can promote the spread of nuclear weapons. In fact, India used the reprocessing technology we gave it in the 1970s to make a nuclear explosive. And that helped changed our attitude toward reprocessing.
Prof. VON HIPPEL: U.S. adopted the policy that we don't reprocess, you don't need to either.
HARRIS: Even so, England, France, Japan and Russia have built reprocessing plants. But von Hippel says the technology is not proving to be a panacea, especially for Japan.
Prof. VON HIPPEL: Well, the ironic thing is in effect the plant isn't working. They spent $20 billion on it and it's at this point eight years behind schedule. So they in fact are having to devise interim storage for their spent fuel.
HARRIS: So von Hippel says from the standpoint of economics and nuclear proliferation it makes the most sense to leave nuclear reactor waste alone.
Sherrell Greene at Oak Ridge agrees that policy issues and economics need to be considered in the debate over reprocessing.
Mr. GREENE: Our job as researchers really is to remove the scientific and technical barriers and to provide options to our national leaders and to our country.
HARRIS: Commercial concerns play a role as well. The French company AREVA is interested in selling a reprocessing plant in the United States. General Electric Hitachi is also developing an advanced form of the technology. And they're all waiting to hear the judgment of the White House's blue ribbon committee on nuclear waste, which is due out in 2012.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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