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Volume 84 Issue 13 | p. 3 | Letters
Issue Date: March 27, 2006

Nuclear waste

Department: Letters

Frederick Ehrgott posed some interesting questions regarding how France and other countries deal with radioactive waste from power reactors (C&EN, Dec. 19, 2005, page 6). Simply put, they reprocess spent power reactor fuel to separate waste material from fissionable material. The fissionable material is reused as fuel, and the waste is immobilized by vitrification and either stored in secure storage locations or disposed of by a method acceptable to their citizens. Ehrgott asked why we don't do the same. The answer is that we could. It is technically simple, very expensive, and politically complex.

Defense nuclear material is reprocessed to recover uranium, plutonium, and other fissionable material. The waste material is stored in secure locations until the nuclear waste can be immobilized by vitrification. The vitrified waste will be stored locally until Congress can summon the political will to move forward with long-term disposal at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, or some other location.

Spent nuclear fuel from civilian power reactors is not reprocessed. Remember that civilian power reactor fuel is more than 90% uranium-238, some of which is converted into plutonium-239 over the life of the fuel. The technology to reprocess reactor fuel is well-known within the defense nuclear community, and the process could be used to recover uranium, plutonium, and other fissionable isotopes. President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order forbidding the reprocessing of power reactor spent fuel. His position was that the U.S. should take the moral high ground and set an example for the rest of the world in preventing or at least slowing the spread of fissionable material. No other president has seen fit to take on the political turmoil that would follow by rescinding President Carter's executive order.

To my knowledge, the U.S. is the only nuclear power that does not reprocess civilian power reactor fuel. As a nation we should ask, "How is President Carter's position working for us? Have we stopped or slowed the spread of fissionable material?"

Richard W. Harral
El Dorado, Ark.

Ehrgott asks how France and other countries deal with radioactive waste. They have no vast, relatively unoccupied regions in which long-term storage facilities can be constructed.

The answer is that the volume of spent fuel is extremely small. For the first two decades or so, spent fuel is stored in a small pool next to the reactor. If the furnace in a coal-burning power plant were replaced with a nuclear reactor, the spent fuel from 100 years of operation could easily be stored in the space formerly occupied by the pile of coal next to the plant. The storage of spent nuclear fuel is the biggest nonproblem of the modern era.

Edwin Norbeck
Coralville, Iowa

 

correction

March 6, page 33:

The number of asbestos personal injury claims Grace faced when it filed for bankruptcy reorganization in 2001 was 129,000, not 325,000.

March 13, page 56:

The insect that produces cochineal was identified as a parasitic beetle. It is not a beetle but a mealybug, Dactylopius coccus, and it is not a parasite. Beetles and mealybugs are in different insect orders.

 
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