Funds for nuclear reprocessing sit idle as energy needs grow

It’s been more than half a year since work stopped on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, after it was hit by the capricious winds of politics. President Barack Obama halted the project at the urging of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is up for re-election in Nevada.

Yet money continues to flow into a government trust fund that Congress created in 1982 to pay for the waste repository.

Instead of being allowed to fall into a black hole, the money should be used to restart nuclear reprocessing in the United States.

Reprocessing used fuel from nuclear power plants would extend uranium resources and help resolve the long-standing nuclear waste problem once and for all.

Granted, at a time when hundreds of billions have been used to stimulate the economy and to bail out banks and insurance companies, the money going into the Nuclear Waste Fund might seem paltry by comparison.

But it’s not. Nationally, users of nuclear-generated electricity have contributed $16.7 billion for planning and construction of the repository, and with interest, that’s grown to $33.2 billion. Less than $10 billion of that amount has been spent on the project.

Georgia utility customers have paid $680 million into the waste fund. Every month ratepayers are assessed a fee of one-tenth of a cent for each kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity. The fee is part of everyone’s electric bill. So why not put this money to better use?

Currently used nuclear fuel is being stored safely at the Hatch and Vogtle plants in Georgia and at other nuclear reactors around the country. It can remain in storage there indefinitely. That’s not the issue.

What’s still lacking on the U.S. nuclear power scene is reprocessing, a technology that was developed in this country but halted by President Jimmy Carter, on the specious grounds that it would contribute to weapons proliferation.

The French and British never followed Carter’s lead and have continued to reprocess used fuel so that it can be converted into new fuel and used to generate more electricity. Currently about a dozen countries, including Japan and Russia, reprocess used fuel.

Plutonium and uranium in used fuel is far too valuable to ignore. Georgia alone has 2,330 metric tons of used fuel in storage. If reprocessed, this used fuel could go a long way toward meeting Georgia’s energy needs.

All it would take is using money in the Nuclear Waste Fund to convert one of the unused facilities at the Savannah River Site into a national center for reprocessing.

We need all sources of energy, especially nuclear power, to help our economy recover and grow. Building and operating a reprocessing facility would provide thousands of well-paying jobs.

Congress can take a lead role in ensuring America’s energy future by reviving the use of nuclear reprocessing. The money to achieve this already exists in the Nuclear Waste Fund. We ought to be making use of it.

Nolan E. Hertel is a professor of nuclear and radiological engineering at Georgia Tech.