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Scientists Against Spent Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing

Scientists Say Spent Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Still Unnecessary, Uneconomic, and Risky

(Washington, D.C.): Two leading scientists warn in an Arms Control Today article this month against embracing the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel as a solution for dealing with accumulating stockpiles of U.S. nuclear waste. Nearly three decades ago, the United States swore off reprocessing because it cost too much and put plutonium-a key material for building nuclear weapons-into circulation, leaving it vulnerable to theft. The authors argue that these rationales remain just as valid, if not more so, today.

In May, the House of Representatives called on the Department of Energy to prepare "an integrated spent fuel recycling plan for implementation beginning in fiscal year 2007, including…reprocessing." Supporters, led by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, say the need is imminent. They contend that, in the absence of reprocessing, the amount of spent fuel discharged by U.S. power reactors will soon exceed the legislated storage capacity of a spent fuel repository being built under Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Steve Fetter and Frank N. von Hippel, however, point out that this is not the case. "Reprocessing does not eliminate the need for a repository, and there is no urgent need for additional repository capacity," they write. Fetter is a professor and dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.

The two scientists further maintain that implementing the proposed reprocessing plan would be far more expensive than storing the spent fuel. They calculate that reprocessing the spent fuel for existing U.S. reactors would add roughly $2 billion annually to the cost of U.S. nuclear-generated electricity. This extra sum would have to be borne by the ratepayers or taxpayers if the federal government underwrites the project. In addition, Fetter and von Hippel estimate that the price of a kilogram of uranium would need to climb 12 times as high as it is today to make reprocessing cost effective. Uranium is currently the main material used in fueling U.S. nuclear reactors.

Reprocessing would also increase the amount of plutonium available that terrorists might try to steal. And a U.S. move toward reprocessing would undercut current efforts to stop the spread of reprocessing capabilities to additional countries. As Fetter and von Hippel note, "A continued U.S. stance that reprocessing is neither necessary nor economic is likely to be more influential than a policy of 'Do as I say, not as I do.'"

The authors say that lawmakers have "plenty of time" to explore more viable solutions for disposing of nuclear waste and urge them against rushing toward reprocessing because it invites more problems than it fixes.

The full article is available on the Arms Control Association's website: Arms Control Today encourages reprints of its articles with permission of the Editor.

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