Producing large amounts of clean, reliable, baseload electricity is no easy task—and nuclear energy does all these things well. But xpanding nuclear energy has well known challenges—one of the biggest is how best to manage used nuclear fuel.
The United States currently uses the “once-through” approach for used-fuel management. In practice, this means that operators remove the used fuel from reactors and store it onsite. According to the plan, the Department of Energy (DOE) will then pick up the used fuel and take it to a permanent geological repository. Until recently,that repository was under development at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but DOE has filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to withdraw the license application.
The main problem is not a matter of onsite storage—NRC has affirmed that used fuel can be stored safely and securely onsite for many years. Nor is it a problem of the concept of a geological repository: The United States will need a repository regardless of its used-fuel strategy. In fact, most of the material awaiting disposal is not waste per se: Only 4 percent of used nuclear fuel is waste material; the remaining 96 percent can be recycled and reused. Recycling allows for reuse of this energy-rich material, conserves natural resources, and makes waste management easier. For a true nuclear renaissance to take place in the United States, used nuclear fuel recycling offers a more sustainable approach to waste management.
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