The Wall Street Journal
November 25, 2014
By Dr. Ariel Cohen

The most difficult challenge to American civilian nuclear energy is spent fuel.

“Nuclear waste” is small in volume and relatively easy to transport safely. However, the waste remains radioactive for a long period of time. Because of this, spent nuclear fuel management is also politically “radioactive.” The U.S. needs to decide whether to reprocess the spent fuel or safely and permanently store it.

So far, we have done neither.

Spent fuel can be reprocessed, using a method that reduces 95% of its volume and radioactivity. The problem with this approach is that it generates plutonium, which can be used for nuclear weapons. Countries with limited space or resources like Japan use reprocessing to make mixed oxide fuel (MOX).

The U.S., however, currently stores its spent fuel around the country—in barrels. Doesn’t sound very high tech! The idea is to sequester the radioactive waste until it is safe. Yucca Mountain is a location that has been selected for a national storage facility, but the plan has become mired in the “not in my backyard” politics.

Yucca’s stable geology, dry climate, deep water table, remote and restricted location, and closed water basin make this location ideal. Yet, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stood against this measure, and many fear that the recent expansion of the Las Vegas city limits brings it too close to the Yucca Mountain site.

There is another option: fast neutron reactors, which can use nuclear waste as a fuel. Most of the spent fuel these reactors consume consists of U-238 which has a higher likelihood of fission when struck with high energy neutrons (hence the name fast neutrons), whereas normal reactors use uranium U-235 isotope because it fissions at lower speeds.

To date, this technology is not economical and has not been deployed in the U.S. The October 2010 Memorandum of Understanding between the energy agencies of Japan, France, and the U.S. to promote the development of fast neutron reactors and related technologies shows an interest in the technology.

In the interim, moving spent fuel for long-term storage should be a top priority.

Ariel Cohen is director of the Center for Energy Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security and principal at International Market Analysis, a political risk advisory firm in Washington, D.C.