by Jarret Adams and Gilles Clement
Rob Inglis at The New Republic‘s Energy and Environment blog, among others, suggested recently that recycling nuclear fuel is too costly to pursue in the United States and that closing the fuel cycle would have little effect on the demand for repository space. We at AREVA believe that recycling can make economic sense and can significantly reduce the volume and toxicity of the waste that must be emplaced in a permanent repository.
1. Recycling Is Not Too Costly
In 2006, the Boston Consulting Group performed a study with input from AREVA concluding that with uranium at $31/lb of U3O8 ($80/kg) the cost of recycling was roughly equivalent to that of direct disposal, assuming repository costs of $700/kg of nuclear material for disposal.
This study was based on the actual figures from existing commercial used fuel recycling plants in Europe. Whereas, previous studies were based upon assumptions or data derived from nuclear weapons complex operation which are not applicable. The cost of recycling is offset by the sale of recycled fuel, specifically mixed oxide (MOX) fuel and fuel made of reprocessed uranium. In addition, much less repository space is required, about one-fourth to one-fifth of the volume remains after recycling.
Today, the long-term price of uranium is about $60/lb of U3O8 and the expected cost of Yucca Mountain repository is about 900$/kg of material for disposal. Hence, recycling makes even more economical sense today, and trend will likely not reverse as worldwide uranium demand grows and uncertainties regarding repository costs increase.
2. Recycling Does Reduce the Need for Additional Repository Space
Recycling does not eliminate the need for a final repository. But it does indeed offer the potential to reduce significantly the volume of waste for disposal. As we have pointed out several times here, recycling can reduce the volume by a factor of at least four and toxicity by a factor or 10.
Used MOX fuel will not be sent for direct disposal. A sustainable recycling strategy is based on recycling all used fuel, including MOX fuel. The recovered material will be recycled in the current or next generation of reactors. This is why recycling reduces the demand on repository space. Recycling nuclear fuel can postpone perhaps indefinitely the need for additional repositories.
Heat is a driving issue for waste storage, but the vitrified waste (the advanced waste packaging that contains the recycling byproducts) can be stored safely until it is ready for disposal. Because all useable material has been removed for recycling, the remaining material requires only limited safeguards. The durability of vitrified glass logs in the repository containers is that of natural volcanic obsidian rock (which is at least 300,000 years).