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Nuclear Waste Recycling – Why the USA does not do it and France,Japan do,Utility and Problems with Nuclear Reprocessing

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Nuclear Recycling is the processing of the nuclear waste generated from the nuclear fuel cycle to extract useful elements like uranium and plutonium which can reused again in the Nuclear Fuel Cycle to generate electricity.About 97% of the used fuel can be recycled leaving only 3% as high-level waste. The recyclable portion is mostly uranium depleted to less than 1% U-235, with some plutonium, which is most valuable. Arising from a year’s operation of a typical l000 MWe nuclear reactor, about 230 kilograms of plutonium (1% of the spent fuel) is separated in reprocessing. This can be used in fresh mixed oxide (MOX) fuel (but not weapons, due its composition). MOX fuel fabrication occurs in Europe, with some 25 years of operating experience. The main plant is in France, and started up in 1995.Major commercial reprocessing plants are operating in France and UK, with capacity of almost 5000 tonnes of used fuel per year, – equivalent to at least one third of the world’s annual output. A total of some 90,000 tonnes of spent fuel has been reprocessed at these over 40 years.

Why USA does not recycle Nuclear Waste

United States developed the technology but banned its commercial use in 1977 under Nixon.Reagan allowed it again in 1981 but given the huge regulatory risks,no commercial reprocessing facility has started in the USA which is unique among developed countries not have a robust Recycling Program for Nuclear Waste.For economic and national security reasons, the United States does not recycle used nuclear fuel. After its use once in the reactor, companies remove it for ultimate disposal in a repository. This “once-through” fuel use is called an “open” fuel cycle. The recycling and reuse of nuclear fuel is called a “closed” fuel cycle.

Note Europe and Japan reprocess almost all of their fuel though they too have not managed to set up a permanent disposal site for their nuclear wastes.Japan despite reprocessing has stockpiled more than 20,000 tons of  Nuclear Waste which it has not found a permanent home for.

Nuclear Recycling Controversies

1) Theft of Fuel – Nuclear Reprocessing was banned as it was felt that the plutonium obtained after recycling of the radwaste would be stolen to develop nuclear weapons

2) Low Level Waste – Nuclear Reprocessing in fact generate more Nuclear Waste after reprocessing as a number of chemical processes are used to seperate the radioactive elements.This is however low level nuclear waste but is strongly opposed by anti-nuclear organization

3) Not Enough Capacity to use MOX – The Plutonium which has been generated also has to be stockpiled as there is not enough nuclear capacity to use MOX which is blend of plutionium used as fuel in nuclear plants.


Nuclear advocates tout nuclear recycling as almost 95% of the uranium is wasted,however the main problem of High Level Nuclear Waste has not been solved by any country in the world now.Japan despite its Reprocessing has tons of Spent Nuclear Fuel in Wet Storage while France which is the kind of Nuclear Energy Reprocessing ( in fact it recycles nuclear waste for other countries) also has the same problem of disposing the waste.


Abhishek Shah

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