By Mike McMahon
My name is Mike McMahon, and I am an American living in the south of France on an expatriate assignment at AREVA’s MELOX mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in the Rhône family. My family and I moved from Bethesda, Maryland to France in July 2008 to begin a multi-year assignment learning firsthand the technologies that AREVA uses to recycle nuclear fuel for the entire French nuclear fleet and for customers in Japan and Germany as well.
It has been quite an adventure for us, with all of the adjustments required for adapting to a new job, a new country, and a new culture. It’s been both exciting and rewarding to learn a new language (challenging), discover the local food and wines (not so challenging), and just getting used to living in what is probably one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.
Of course, the most rewarding experience for me has been the chance to work at MELOX, the AREVA facility that makes new, recycled nuclear fuel from the energy-rich materials recovered from used fuel from nuclear power plants. MELOX is the world leader in manufacturing recycled fuel, and it operates 24/7 to meet the growing demand for recycling in Europe and Japan.
While the technology that enables recycling is fairly advanced, the basic idea behind recycling is simple. The fundamental driver for recycling is the fact that about 96% of the material in the used fuel is reusable, and only about 4% is truly “waste” that must be treated for disposal. In the recycling process used in France, we recover the reusable energy-rich materials (uranium and plutonium) and turn this into new fuel, while we treat the small remaining quantity of final waste and seal it in tough and durable glass “logs” to ensure a minimum impact on the environment after disposal. The glass is a very robust material that resembles obsidian, (volcanic glass) and it will keep the waste safely sealed away from the environment for literally hundreds of thousands of years.
Managing used nuclear fuel through recycling is very different from the approach the U.S. has taken for the last 30 years. Since the 1970s, the U.S approach has been not to recycle, but instead to use the fuel once and then to place used fuel assemblies, intact and untreated, into deep geological storage. Congress made the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for implementing this plan, and mandated that it pick up the first used fuel assemblies and transport them to a geologic repository by January 1998.
Eleven years and $10 billion later, it is clear the “once-through” policy for used fuel management is much more difficult to implement than had been envisioned. The technical and public acceptance challenges of implementing the “once-through” policy have resulted in the movement of essentially no used fuel from plant sites. In addition, DOE has recently declared that Yucca Mountain, Nev., repository site is “off the table.” With used nuclear fuel accumulating at U.S. reactor sites at a rate of 2,000 metric tons per year, the viability of the American “once-through” policy increasingly is being called into question.
Growing concern about climate change and renewed interest in the expanded use of nuclear power has sparked new debate in the U.S. on the merits of recycling. At MELOX, this has translated into a strong surge in the number of American visitors wanting to see for themselves how recycling works and what it would mean to start recycling in the U.S. As one of four Americans working at MELOX, I explain to interested visitors how recycling works in France and respond to their questions. One of the most surprising things to our American visitors is just how routine recycling has become. Rather than the exotic or experimental process they expect, recycling has a proven track record of more than 35 years as a safe, reliable, and affordable part of the business of nuclear power generation.
The more I learn about recycling, the more I am convinced that it would be the most responsible and common-sense solution for managing used nuclear fuel in the U.S. In Europe, recycling gives utilities the ability to manage used nuclear fuel efficiently and allows them to continue to generate electricity from nuclear power safely, responsibly and affordably. In contrast, the diffi-culties in implementing the “once-through” policy in the U.S. have resulted in an impasse which has left utilities burdened with the growing costs of storing used fuel on-site and with no clear path forward for a sustainable, long-term solution.
If the U.S. does turn to recycling, my expatriate colleagues and I hope to be a part of that solu-tion by serving as “ambassadors” to bring this proven technology back to the U.S. This would be somewhat ironic, because the U.S. actually invented recycling technology and was the world leader in the field for a time before moving away from it in the 1970s. Today, technical and industrial leadership in the field rests outside of America, with much of it in France, where decades of industrial-scale operations, R&D and continuous improvement have achieved high levels of cost-effectiveness, safety and efficiency.
I plan to use this space to share perspectives of an American working on the other side of the pond to discuss recycling and its potential benefits for the U.S. energy sector. I would welcome any feedback, questions, comments, or debate from those of you reading it.