Representatives from France and French firms met with American industry executives and academics at Georgia Tech recently where the discussion centered on how recycling in France reduces nuclear waste by more than 95 percent.
The procedure of refurbishing spent fuel rods is commonly called reprocessing in the United States and recycling in France.
I like the connotations implied by "recycling" because reusing a potential resource is exactly what recycling does.
When a spent fuel rod is recycled, 94 percent of the uranium is reclaimed along with 1 percent plutonium and 5 percent other. Most of that last 5 percent can be used beneficially, e.g. medical purposes, with less than 1 percent needing permanent storage as waste.
The United States prohibits the reprocessing of spent fuel that would allow most of it to be used again.
President Jimmy Carter (1977-80) feared that the plutonium created as part of the process could be exploited for the making of nuclear bombs. But France is able to safeguard the plutonium and adhere to international agreements on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons while recycling.
"That policy in the '70s demonized used fuel and put it into the category as ‘waste' and something that has to be handled as a waste," said David Jones, senior vice president for reprocessing at the French company AREVA. "We're trying to get out of that mentality. The rest of the world is already viewing it as a resource."
France's 58 reactors compose the second-largest "fleet" in the world behind the United States. Nuclear power generates the majority of France's electricity (75-80 percent) with a surplus available for exporting to neighboring countries. Yet, France's stockpile of nuclear waste is a fraction of what's awaiting permanent, underground disposal here.
Besides waste reduction, recycling used fuel rods will prolong the available fuel for reactors.
In addition to killing the prospect of recycling fuel rods from civilian nuclear reactors, Carter killed the "fast breeder" program which would have provided additional fuel from depleted uranium.
Plant Vogtle's construction of two reactors near Waynesboro is adding urgency to calls for recycling spent nuclear fuel assemblies.
Georgia's four existing reactors at Plant Vogtle and Plant Hatch near Baxley have nearly 10,000 used fuel assemblies stored.
Vogtle's new reactors are the first of what some say will be a national surge of new nuclear power plants.
As of today, there are 152 new nuclear reactors planned world-wide.
"If our friends at Vogtle are as successful as we believe they will be - there's a lot of confidence in the team that is out there in the field - that will help prime the pump for the next wave (of reactor development)," said David Blee, executive director of the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council.
During my military tour with the Department of Energy, I had several occasions to visit the Savannah River Plant.
Joe Carter, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, spoke openly of things that had been classified during my tour of duty. He explained that the plant already had a reprocessing facility that could be placed into service for handling civilian fuel rods. This seems an ideal solution for reducing the spent rods at Vogtle and near-by reactors in South Carolina.
The March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster increased global concerns over nuclear safety.
Experts attending the forum presented current policies on operational safety, plant security and emergency preparedness.
A detailed time-line of the event was presented. Had it not been for the tsunami waves (one was 45 feet high) flooding the back-up generators, it is believed the reactors would have withstood most damages of the 9.0 earthquake.
Following 9-11, the U.S. nuclear industry underwent a self-evaluation.
Following the Fukushima disaster, the industry realized that the mitigating strategies developed for terrorist attacks were in fact good strategies for mitigation of natural events as well.
For example, the communications strategy developed post 9-11 is working well for the Fukushima disaster.
Plans are already in the works to support a long term effort of removing the fuel from the site and decommissioning the plant.
Energy independence in all forms should be at the top of our national security list. Implementing ideas from the French to achieve a 95 percent nuclear recycle ratio will solve one of the most pressing challenges to maximize our use of nuclear power.
Let me know what you think about achieving energy independence.
Rep. Amos Amerson can be reached at 689 N. Chestatee Street, Dahlonega, GA 30533; phone (706) 864-6589; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Or contact Gerald Lewy at (706) 344-7788.