Fuel for Thought:
Sustaining the Nuclear Revival with a Sustainable Fuel Cycle
Editorial Column by Jacques Besnainou, President, AREVA Inc.
As we work toward the revival of nuclear energy in the United States, we are addressing some of the key challenges of our time. We are helping to meet the nation’s growing energy needs while preventing the emissions of additional greenhouse gases.
Companies in the United States are considering the construction of more than 30 new nuclear power reactors, and worldwide, new commercial reactors are already under construction, including four AREVA Generation III+ EPR™ reactors in Finland, France and China. But for nuclear energy to continue this revival, we must move toward a more sustainable fuel cycle, which in practical terms means broad use of recycling. Recycling nuclear fuel enables us to conserve natural resources and helps us to effectively manage used fuel.
Clearly, the nuclear waste issue is one of the main concerns the public has with generating electricity with nuclear energy. But we recycle paper, plastic, aluminum-why not nuclear materials? Recycling is indeed an ecological necessity in modern societies. Why do some regard the notion of nuclear recycling with such suspicion? France and other nuclear energy countries have proven that they can recycle safely and efficiently and have been doing so for decades. AREVA is justifiably proud of its facilities near Cherbourg and Avignon where much of this work takes place.
Today, we can recycle approximately 96 percent of the material in used fuel, with the remaining 4 percent sent for disposal. The recycling process reduces the amount of radioactive waste that requires disposal by a factor of at least four and reduces the toxicity of the waste by a factor of 10. The remaining waste is vitrified, embedded in glass logs that are extremely resistant to the forces of nature – they are proven to resist water for more than 300,000 years – and stored in stainless steel canisters.
If the U.S. developed a domestic recycling capability, it would increase its energy independence by creating new reactor fuel from the used material and reduce the amount of fresh fuel required by 20 percent to 25 percent. After reprocessing the used fuel, it can be used again as mixed oxide (MOX) fuel and enriched reprocessed uranium fuel. AREVA has produced MOX fuel for multiple customers in Europe and Japan.
We are serious about the nature of the work we do. At each stage in the process, safety and security measures are the main priorities. We strenuously work to ensure that there is no risk of diversion and prevent any accidental dispersion of radioactive materials into the environment through careful industrial practices and exhaustive testing. Studies have proven that there is no impact on public health and the environment at AREVA’s recycling plants.
Recycling is indeed a competitive solution compared to the once-through, direct disposal approach, according to a 2006 Boston Consulting Group study. While there are uncertainties regarding the ultimate costs of the once-through approach, we know the costs of recycling because of our industrial experience over the past decades. It is also a great job creation industry: AREVA’s recycling plants have created more than 10,000 direct and indirect high skilled jobs for decades. Growing demand from countries expanding their nuclear sectors, including China and India, could increase uranium prices to the point where recycling becomes an even more attractive option.
Even though completion of the national repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., is still many years away, its capacity is nearly all spoken for by used fuel in storage at existing plant sites. By recycling used fuel, we will postpone having to locate and build a second, or third, repository. However, no amount of recycling will prevent the need for a repository – a small amount of byproducts will always require permanent disposal. But the challenges posed with developing a long-term repository along with growing interest in nuclear energy’s expansion have prompted the U.S. government to consider possibilities for recycling capability. In 2007, AREVA was part of a team that explored the implementation ofa domestic advanced recycling capability for the Department of Energy.
Critics often cite the issue of nuclear waste management as a reason for opposing nuclear energy’s expansion. However, sound, economic solutions for managing our used nuclear fuel exist and we are pursuing them as a matter of course. Used fuel is stored safely and securely at plant sites and ultimately could be disposed at the Yucca Mountain or other suitable sites, but recycling offers us a more sustainable approach. Through recycling, we can conserve our natural resources, promote energy security and reduce the volume and toxicity of byproducts that we must send for disposal. As we search for more sustainable approaches to meet our energy needs, recycling is a natural choice.
(Reprinted from Nuclear Power International Magazine)
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