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Plan Could Reduce Waste Sent to Yucca Mountain

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Plan Could Reduce Waste Sent to Yucca Mountain


Plan Could Reduce Waste Sent to Yucca Mountain

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There is new interest in an idea that could completely transform how the United States handles nuclear waste. The plan is to recycle part of the waste so it could be used again in a reactor to make electricity. Reprocessing could also reduce the amount of material destined for Yucca Mountain. That's the facility in Nevada that's supposed to hold radioactive waste for hundreds of thousands of years. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


David Hobson doesn't like the word `reprocessing.' He prefers `recycling.' He's a Republican congressman from Ohio, and here's how he sees things. First, the nation's nuclear waste is piling up at 72 reactor sites in 33 states, and it's costing the government money.

Representative DAVID HOBSON (Republican, Ohio): Right now, this fuel is sitting around all these power plants in this country, and we're incurring at--a cost to those power companies because the government agreed to remove that material. They have not done it.

KESTENBAUM: Hobson's vision is to move the waste to a few centralized locations and then reprocess it. He recently inserted language into a spending bill that asks the Energy Department to come up with a reprocessing plan by 2007. He hopes Congress will approve the idea. The more waste that is recycled, Hobson says, the less new fuel the power plants have to buy and the less waste you end up generating overall.

Rep. HOBSON: I think we need Yucca Mountain. I just don't want to fill it up. I think it's cost effective to recycle and reuse and build new plants and use Yucca Mountain as the final resting place of whatever the last material is that you need to put there.

KESTENBAUM: Hobson points out that Japan reprocesses its waste; so does France. And the United States used to. In the early 1970s, there was a reprocessing plant in West Valley, New York. It took waste from nuclear plants, extracted the plutonium and shipped it back to a reactor which produced electricity. President Ford and then President Carter, who had studied nuclear engineering, effectively put a stop to this kind of recycling. There was concern the technology could be used by others to extract plutonium for bombs. Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois say they may have a solution to that problem. Phillip Finck is a deputy associate laboratory director at Argonne.

Mr. PHILLIP FINCK (Argonne National Laboratory): The basic idea is to never separate pure weapons useable materials.

KESTENBAUM: The process does pull out plutonium, but it's mixed up with other nasty elements: americium, neptunium, curium.

Mr. FINCK: On purpose, what you separate is material that remains hot, difficult to handle, would not be attractive for anybody who would want to divert it and misuse it.

KESTENBAUM: And you're convinced this would be good enough that--deter a terrorist from trying to grab it and make a bomb?

Mr. FINCK: Yes.

KESTENBAUM: The lab has tested these ideas on small amounts of waste. Finck is expected to describe those tests today at a congressional hearing. Matthew Bunn will be speaking, also. He studies nuclear policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He's not a big fan of reprocessing. He says the plutonium that comes out may be hard for terrorists to handle, but it would still have to be protected.

Mr. MATTHEW BUNN (Harvard's Kennedy School of Government): The United States today is spending over a billion dollars a year trying to protect the sites that have this kind of material from terrorists right now, so now we're talking about spreading it through the civilian nuclear enterprise.

KESTENBAUM: Not a good idea, Bunn says. Reprocessing also looks to be very expensive, he says. Reprocessed fuel, he estimates, would be about 10 times more expensive than the fuel power plants currently buy. Supporters say the technology could save money on the waste storage side of things. The Department of Energy was asked about costs in 2003. The department essentially threw up its hands and said without more research, it will be impossible to know. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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