The transuranics happen to be among the longest-lived materials in the waste stream, and thus some of the hardest to dispose of. That’s what makes GNEP seem so appealing as not only a climate-change solution but a waste solution, too. Finck says it would theoretically cut the heat and toxicity of what is today considered waste enough to make Yucca Mountain last through this century, instead of being fully booked before the first fuel bundle is buried.
Nuclear-power pioneers in industry and government always assumed that fuel would be reprocessed to recover the plutonium for reuse. Such reprocessing is the way the Manhattan Project gathered plutonium for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. (The Hiroshima bomb used enriched uranium.) W. R. Grace opened a reprocessing center in West Valley, NY, in 1965 and later sold it to Getty Oil. The plant ran until 1972 and cost more than $1.6 billion to clean up. General Electric tried, too, building a plant in Morris, IL, but it was deemed inoperable in 1974. Then President Carter banned the technology because of proliferation concerns.
GNEP would bring these ideas back from the grave in a much more ambitious form that raises such concerns once more. One worry is the way the bomb-usable material would be extracted from the used fuel. Backers say GNEP would reduce the risk of proliferation, because unlike the old reprocessing techniques, still used in some countries, the new ones would not yield pure plutonium. But today eight kilograms of plutonium – the amount required to make a bomb – is embedded in about a metric ton of highly radioactive waste; in the new system it would be diluted with only a small quantity of other materials. Governments or terrorists would find it far easier to steal the separated material and extract the plutonium, critics say, than they would to recover plutonium from today’s spent nuclear fuel.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, discussing GNEP, promised that it would “respond to the challenges of global terrorism.” The idea is to baby-proof the fuel cycle: countries like Iran could lease fuel enriched to reactor levels – 5 percent U-235 – but not to bomb levels, typically greater than 90 percent U-235. They would send their spent fuel back to more-secure countries for reprocessing and a second go-round inside the advanced reactors. These reactors, which would burn many of the elements produced in the simpler reactors, would be located in stable places like Indiana or Florida – or in countries that already have nuclear weapons.
The resulting “partnership” would make American policy on nuclear technology more similar to that of Russia and France, both of which already separate plutonium. Advocates cite this as an added bonus of a program that, says Finck, “will provide the United States with a long-term, affordable, carbon-free energy source with low environmental impact.”