Regulating change – the challenge of American reprocessing

As used nuclear fuel continues to pile up in the United States, the need for a solution other than depots has never been greater. Andrew Tunnicliffe chats with Sven Bader and Steven Nesbit from the American Nuclear Society about how technology can help solve the problem and what regulators need to do now to avoid a bigger problem in the future

Today, the United States imports almost all of its uranium supply, with Canada and Australia taking the lion’s share.

By the middle of the last century, however, the United States was experiencing something of a boom in uranium mining. In addition to being well positioned to produce uranium, the country was on the path to reprocessing nuclear fuel, with a commercial plant operational in West Valley and two more under construction: General Electric’s Morris plant in the Illinois and the Allied-General Nuclear Service Barnwell reprocessing plant. in South Carolina. But that only lasted until the late 1970s.

There is a lot of debate about what led to the reduction in reprocessing. Some industry observers suggest it was the economy, others suggest it was a lack of political will, but the majority argue it was non-proliferation, at one point. when the Cold War was the most dangerous. It was probably all of that and more.

It must be said that reprocessing is currently taking place in the United States, but it is on a small scale and mainly at the facilities of the Department of Energy (DOE) with used nuclear fuel belonging to the DOE. This non-commercial reprocessing is not regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

What stands in the way of commercial reprocessing today remains a myriad of complex concerns. A June 2021 article in Catalyst asked, “Why doesn’t the United States reprocess spent nuclear fuel?” The problem, he said, was “a political problem,” but Sven Bader, vice chairman of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) public policy committee and technical consultant at Orano Federal Services, LLC is not. disagree with this statement. For him, the problem is primarily economic, but solving it must include reducing investment uncertainty, which means tackling the outdated and cumbersome regulatory framework. Regulators only have “a limited number of resources to make rules,” he said, adding that if there is movement, it takes time.

Commercial reprocessing was halted in 1977 by then-President Carter due to concerns about proliferation.
This decision was overturned by President Reagan only four years later. But despite Reagan’s turnaround, the practice never really gained ground, largely because of the economy.

Bader says, “Currently we do not do any commercial reprocessing in the United States and this is mainly for economic reasons. We simply cannot compete with the raw material that we extract, process, enrich and crush.

Steven Nesbit, president of ANS and president of LMNT Consulting, agrees that the current situation is the result of decisions made in the 1970s. “When you go back in time, you could say that most other nuclear countries were on. a path that would integrate reprocessing into their fuel cycle, and the UK and France have continued on this path, “he said. “The United States made a different decision and went in a different direction, where it wouldn’t recycle or reprocess. This decision, overturned by Reagan, has set the scene for the United States now.

According to Nesbit, the relatively low cost of uranium, coupled with the substantial costs of developing processing plants, were and continue to be prohibitive factors. He says, “It’s a combination of decisions made in the 1970s and today’s economy. Reprocessing facilities are very expensive to build and, if the price of uranium is low enough, it is difficult to find an economic justification to recycle the fuel and recover this material when you can simply start from scratch and do it cheaply. cost.

Another important obstacle is the uncertain regulatory environment. Nuclear players are starting to show their dissatisfaction with the current situation. Work is underway to achieve regulation, but the process has been painfully slow and is proving to be a substantial obstacle to the evolution of the sector. In fact, the process has largely stalled, which has deterred many people from fully committing to the process.

Bader says this uncertainty turns out to be a huge risk that investors are currently reluctant to take. He draws attention to what he calls “loopholes” in regulations that have existed for many years, such as the requirement to place any high-level waste produced during reprocessing in a repository within 10 years. years (10CFR50, Annex F). “It’s great if you have a repository available, but without the repository it’s a huge risk and it’s a challenge right now,” he says.

Along with EnergySolutions, the Nuclear Energy Institute and Westinghouse, the ANS last year urged the NRC to speed up its processes. In a letter to the NRC, Craig H Piercy, Executive Director and CEO of the ANS, said: End and the sustainable role of nuclear energy.

He added that with advancements in reactor technology and the availability of nuclear fuel, waste minimization represents “a key factor necessary to ensure the long-term sustainability of nuclear power.” The letter said, “Rule making is a deliberative process and it is important to establish a comprehensive regulatory framework before submitting any license application. In addition, the completion of reprocessing regulations would support future options and potential innovations in used fuel management as well as clean energy production using advanced reactors. ”

Advanced reactors are generating a growing demand for some sort of regulatory resolution, says Nesbit, who says: “Our position at ANS is that we not only look at the present in nuclear technology and energy, but also towards the future. We see the potential to want to deploy reprocessing and recycling facilities, perhaps in conjunction with advanced reactors, in the coming decade. “

Nesbit says the 2020 letter to NRC reflected this reality and the need for a viable framework. “While there is no need to correct the regulatory framework immediately, we believe it is time to prepare before you need to be ready… It’s not like they [the NRC] correcting the regulatory framework tomorrow, there would be loads of recycling facilities popping up all over the United States, but it needs to be done and we would like them to go ahead and do it.

The prospect of advanced reactors is real. It is estimated that there are currently about 75 advanced reactor designs in the United States alone. Fast reactors are increasingly attractive given their ability to recover spent fuel. As the latest technologies move from R&D to commercialization, they will allow power producers to reuse some of the spent fuel on site. Bader is particularly optimistic and believes that these technologies could even address some of the challenges NRC faces in its rule-making.

However, the two men think above all that there is an important case for the recycling of spent fuel: intergenerational inequalities. “It’s something we don’t talk about a lot,” Bader says, “that we generate waste now and leave it to the next generation to take care of it. Nesbit agrees, adding that dealing with the problem today is just the right thing to do.

However, he says the fact that the United States has stored the waste safely and efficiently so far has, in some ways, been an obstacle to final disposal now. “We have managed our nuclear fuel safely for years and we will continue to do so. So there is no smoking gun that says we have to get it fixed tomorrow and that is part of the problem because it gives people a chance to throw the box later, ”he warns.

If reprocessing is to become the next frontier for the United States and its nuclear fuel cycle, there is still a long way to go. The NRC must take significant steps towards an improved regulatory framework and reprocessing must become much more economical. “Ultimately, recycling or reprocessing will have to be economically, safety and value proposition independent if it is to be adopted on a large scale in the United States,” warns Nesbit.

However, Bader suggests that advancements in reactor technology may soon create this environment. “A lot of new concepts are about advanced, fast reactors, which would be able to burn things like recycled MOX fuel,” he says.

There is also another element that he wanted to focus on. Comparing the United States and its abundance of spent fuel currently stored in depots in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its abundant oil reserves, he says, “We have 80,000 metric tons… We have a lot of resources to use if we need it. Somehow something has to happen with this “resource”. In an era of extreme climate awareness, and an era when reuse is all the rage, why not make the most of spent fuel? One person’s waste is another person’s treasure – this has never been truer.

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