Editor's Note: This story is part of the Feature "Nuclear Fuel Recycling: More Trouble Than It's Worth" from the May 2008 Issue of Scientific American.
A Nuclear Renaissance?
After decades of declining interest, nuclear energy is poised for a comeback, driven by:
- Rising costs of fossil fuels
- Nuclear power’s lack of carbon emissions
- Generous government subsidies
The quantity of spent fuel so far accumulated by the U.S. nuclear industry (about 58,000 metric tons) now very nearly equals the capacity of the cooling pools used to hold such material at the reactor sites. By midcentury, the amount will roughly double.
Pros & Cons
In theory, reprocessing spent fuel and recycling it in reactors reduces the quantity of uranium mined and leaves more of the waste in forms that remain radioactive for only a few centuries rather than many millennia. But in practice, this approach is problematic because it is expensive, reduces waste only marginally (unless an extremely costly and complex recycling infrastructure is built), and increases the risk that the plutonium in the spent fuel will be used to make nuclear weapons.
Progress on the proposed U.S. nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada remains slow. At best, its construction will not be authorized until 2011, and the project will not be completed until 2016. The U.S. nuclear industry thus will not begin storing spent fuel there until 2017—or even later, if work is delayed by scientific controversies, legal challenges or funding shortfalls.