Idaho National Laboratory (INL)
John Batchelor and Lou Ann Hammond talk to Harold McFarlane, President American Nuclear Society and Deputy Associate Laboratory Director Idaho National Laboratory (INL)
“To build a secure energy future for America, we need to expand production of clean, safe nuclear power.”
President George W. Bush
Ronald Reagan Building
June 15, 2005
“Nuclear energy is 10 million times as dense as fossil energy,” said Harold McFarlane, President American Nuclear Society, and Deputy Associate Laboratory Director Idaho National Laboratory (INL). “It doesn’t matter”, I replied, “until you can figure what to do with the waste, or spent fuel as you call it, people will not embrace nuclear energy.” McFarlane shot back, “We have the technology to recycle the waste and use it again, but Federal policy won’t allow us to recycle the waste in the United States.”
It turns out that the Idaho National Laboratory and other incredibly brilliant scientists have a way to recycle the spent fuel or Uranium-235 & 238, plutonium and minor actinides for reuse. I think of gasoline: the oil company refines the oil into gasoline, we fill our tank up with gas and the vapors go into the air. Try capturing those vapors, reconstituting them and making gasoline out of them again. A heady proposal. If nuclear is used to create energy, the leftover fuel used to create electricity is held in rods that look like steel fishing rods. Recycling the spent nuclear fuel (SNF) has already been figured out and can be reused to create more electricity. It only needs government approval and a group that would recycle the SNF.
According to Dr. Kathryn A. McCarthy, Director, Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems Integration, Idaho National Laboratory (INL), “there are 103 nuclear reactors in the United States that produce 20 percent of the electricity. We have the technology to get 100 times the electricity from the spent fuel if we are able to recycle it. Japan, France, and Belgium are already recycling. Countries such as China and India and Russia are all ramping up their use of nuclear power, this would take some of the pressure off the uranium resources and minimize the materials that need to be isolated in a geologic repository such as Yucca Mountain. Proliferation risk is reduced because we can burn this as a fuel, so there is not access to make a bomb.”
McCarthy’s group, INL, together with Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, has already started testing recycling on a lab-scale and has demonstrated that it works. “This will be about a twenty-year process to demonstrate and another 5 years to begin operating at industrial scale if we leverage existing commercial expertise. INL would like to get the winning bid to build a recycling plant. We have the technical expertise, the infrastructure, the land, and a supportive community” says McCarthy. They will still need approval from our government. And they will need money. In a paper, aptly titled, “America’s Energy Security in a Resource-Constrained, Globally competitive, Carbon-Capped World” written by Harold McFarlane, President, American Nuclear Society & Deputy Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear Programs, INL shows a chart that the United States accumulates over 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel every year. It is said that by 2010 there will be over 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel in canisters all over the United States.
According to Stephen P. Melancon, Sr. Manager, Business Development, Entergy, the US’s fourth-largest utility company, “utility companies have paid into the DOE $22 billion dollars for the development of Yucca Mountain to store all their spent fuel.” This is an agreement that was made some thirty years ago and has still not happened. I am trying to make sense of this: if I agree with the only garbage company in town to pay them to take my garbage and I pay them on time every year to take that garbage, I expect that garbage to be gone every Friday morning. Unfortunately, DOE has been letting the spent fuel stockpile and Yucca Mountain is still not prepared to take the spent fuel.
There are very few solutions, so I will offer them;
- The United States must open up Yucca Mountain and store all the spent fuel canisters there till a reprocessing facility is available.
- America must aggressively fund research and development programs for reprocessing spent fuel.
- Collaboration should be funded for research and development with the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), in order to hasten the deployment of reprocessing facilities, utilizing knowledge and technology with other nations that already possess reprocessing technology.Last year, Congressman Dave Hobson – Ohio 7th District (R-OH), Chairman of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, had $10 million included in the fiscal year 2006 bill for additional technology development on recycling technologies. He was also $50 million included in the bill for a competitive site selection process and for the preparation of a comprehensive program for recycling. Hobson is supportive of using more nuclear power because it’s clean-burning, reliable and will help us become more energy independent. He wants this country to move forward on the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, but he also believes that we should also recycle spent nuclear fuel, especially if 97 percent of energy in the fuel rods is still available after one use.
Hobson believes “that it is time to rethink our approach to dealing with spent fuel. We need to start moving spent fuel away from reactor sites to one or more centralized, above-ground interim storage facilities at DOE sites. If we want to build a new generation of nuclear reactors in this country, we need to demonstrate to Wall Street that the Federal government will live up to its responsibilities under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to take title to commercial spent nuclear fuel.”
“We are already storing foreign reactor fuel on DOE sites – it is time we do the same for our domestic spent fuel. This may help to limit the billions of dollars of legal liability facing the Federal government for its failure to accept commercial spent fuel for disposal.”
“It is also time that we think again about our reluctance to reprocess spent fuel. The Europeans are doing this successfully, and there are some advanced reprocessing technologies in the R&D phase that promise to reduce or eliminate some of the disadvantages of the current PUREX process.”
In fact, Europeans are already using Gen IV products, reactors that allow for recycling in the plant, similar to the reactor General Electric has developed, but not used in the United States. One big reason to fix our nuclear problems would be so that we can make hydrogen, the fuel of the future. Hydrogen is clean and when combusted in a fuel cell emit’s only water and heat. One kilogram of hydrogen at $6 would equal one gallon of gas at $3.
And as Dr. McFarlane said, “There are many industrial applications that will benefit from the development of low-cost hydrogen production using nuclear energy. That can only help us get to hydrogen-powered vehicles more quickly.”