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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Overcoming Nuclear Power’s Biggest Hurdle

However, a market for spent-fuel vouchers would be far more controlled and predictable because nuclear reactor construction is based on extensive studies of future energy use; hence, the number of spent-fuel vouchers could be closely linked to actual energy production. And although overall energy use does fluctuate with economic changes, over time it tends to move consistently upward in steady gradients.

In many ways, the cap and trade model for nuclear waste is already being tested in Europe. The U.K. has announced it will accept nuclear waste from Japan, Germany, Italy, and other nations for a fee, with the funds being used to pay for its own nuclear waste storage. Though the move is not popular among Britons, it does affix a price to storage and proves that a market for it exists.

A price-to-store program in the U.S. would also create incentives to reduce the volume of nuclear waste going into long-term facilities, because states would want to optimize the storage fees they receive by keeping their sites open for as long as possible. This is not an insignificant issue, as even a fully active Yucca would fill up in about a dozen years. The best approach to minimize waste is to recycle or reprocess the spent-fuel rods.

Recycling involves chemically treating spent-fuel rods to pull out remaining useful uranium and plutonium — the primary elements in nuclear reactions — for reuse in producing electricity, and storing the rest long term. The end result is that more energy is produced from the fuel with less to store, which in turn expands storage capacity significantly. Some experts believe that recycling could reduce the volume of waste by as much as 90 percent.

One complication is that the post-recycling waste is far more radioactive and requires even greater long-term care. For several decades, the U.S. military tried reprocessing to obtain fissionable material for bombs but the efforts failed, leaving behind widespread contamination in Washington and South Carolina.

Still, although banned since 1977 in the U.S., reprocessing is going strong in Europe and Japan. The private French company Areva SA operates a large facility in La Hague, on the coast of Normandy, which reprocesses not only France’s nuclear waste, but also radioactive by-products from other countries. This plant has generated enough new electricity from the spent rods to power France on its own for 14 years.

If the U.S. were to enter the market for nuclear waste recycling, the increase in activity would likely bring down sharply the cost of reprocessed uranium. If recycled fuel achieves parity with newly mined uranium, it is possible that utilities would want to squeeze more fuel out of the nuclear rods currently stored on-site, leading to even greater reductions in nuclear waste.

Although the price-to-store system has clear advantages, it would likely face opposition or at least only muted enthusiasm initially from the spectrum of nuclear power advocates and critics. Environmentalists are by and large opposed to all nuclear power projects because they refuse to believe that producing electricity in this way is anything but ecologically dangerous, no matter the safeguards placed on storage facilities, the intent to minimize radioactive waste, or the degree to which recycling is encouraged. Just as important, the utilities may have to be convinced that price to store is to their advantage before supporting the program. At first blush, the utilities may be wary about relinquishing a highly regulated and highly predictable economic model, and participating in a market in which the cost to operate is dependent on daily swings in the value of its waste product.

Adopting a market-based system to counteract the federal government’s failure to find a regulatory solution for storing nuclear waste may seem like a questionable move in a deep recession brought on by market ineptitude. But if the nuclear industry is ever to play a big role in reducing carbon emissions, price-to-store may be the only workable response to decades of inaction.

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  1. A. Denny Ellerman and Paul L. Joskow, “The European Union’s Emissions Trading System in Perspective” (PDF), Pew Center on Global Climate Change, May 2008: A critical analysis of the European Union’s cap and trade program to reduce carbon emissions.
  2. Peter Fairley, “Nuclear Wasteland,” IEEE Spectrum, February 2007: An examination of nuclear waste recycling programs through the lens of reprocessing activities in France.
  3. Energy Information Administration Web site: Department of Energy statistics and forecasts related to the global nuclear power industry and energy production from nuclear reactors.
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