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Experts: Halt Comeback of Spent Nuclear Fuel Technology

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Monday, June 14, 2021   

BOISE, Idaho -- As the U.S. aims to push past fossil fuel dependency, nuclear power is part of the conversation, but non-proliferation watchdogs hope a method for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to retrieve plutonium doesn't make a comeback.

Dr. Frank von Hippel, senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus at Princeton University, said in reprocessing, spent reactor fuel is dissolved and plutonium or enriched uranium is separated out of the material.

"Originally, it was developed to separate plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons," von Hippel explained. "Now, some countries use it to separate out plutonium as well for use in nuclear fuel."

Reprocessing was banned in the 1970s after India's first nuclear detonation was tied to U.S. reprocessing technology.

The nuclear industry wants the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to loosen rules. In a 2020 letter to the NRC, the American Nuclear Society said reprocessing would get the most out of nuclear fuel and reduce waste.

Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist for the group Beyond Nuclear, said there is high-level waste from the U.S. nuclear weapons program at the Idaho National Laboratory, although most of it is dried and stored.

He noted reprocessing operations from civilian companies do not have a good environmental track record in the U.S.

"We see high-level radioactive waste, irradiated nuclear fuel, as just that, it's a forever deadly waste that needs to be isolated from the environment," Kamps asserted. "Reprocessing does the opposite of that. It releases a part of it into the environment, inevitably."

The Idaho National Laboratory said it does reprocessing research on small quantities of spent nuclear fuel. It's part of research into the development of advanced reactor concepts.

Von Hippel believes there is renewed interest in the technology. In late May, he and other non-proliferation experts raised concerns in an open letter to Canada's prime minister about the country's financial support for a company that has proposed reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

Von Hippel also hopes to convince the Biden administration that there is no need to revisit the technology.

"There's no good economic or environmental reason for civilian plutonium separation," Von Hippel argued. "So I, and many colleagues, say that no country should separate plutonium for nominally civilian purposes. It is a weapons-usable material."


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