GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, one of the world’s biggest providers of nuclear reactors, says it has an alternative to burying nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the proposed waste repository that the Obama administration has said is now “off the table.” Based in Wilmington, NC, GE Hitachi wants to use nuclear waste as a fuel for advanced nuclear power plants, significantly reducing the volume of waste and the length of time that most of the waste needs to be stored.
National labs in the United States and GE have been developing the technology over the course of a few decades, but in recent years the company “put it on the shelf” because of a lack of U.S. interest in reusing nuclear waste, says Eric Loewen, chief consulting engineer for advanced plants at GE Hitachi. The technology involves separating nuclear waste into different types of useable fuel, some of which can power conventional nuclear power plants, and some of which require advanced “fast neutron” reactors, which are being used in power plants elsewhere but not in the United States.
The company hopes a new blue-ribbon panel appointed by the Obama administration to find a new nuclear-waste solution will recommend the use of their system. Steven Chu, U.S. Secretary of Energy, has expressed support for different kinds of nuclear reactors, and for considering the possibility of reprocessing nuclear waste. In recent weeks, the Obama administration has signaled increased support for nuclear power, including the announcement yesterday of the first loan guarantee for new nuclear reactors in the United States.
Current U.S. nuclear power plants are only able to harness as little as 5 percent of the energy in nuclear fuel. Some countries, such as France, use other processes to extract useable nuclear fuel from nuclear waste, but these processes have been criticized, in part because they produce pure plutonium, which could be stolen and used to make nuclear weapons.
GE Hitachi’s proposed process would produce fuel that would be more difficult to steal. It separates nuclear waste into three basic groups of materials. The first group consists of the products of fission that can’t be used as fuel in nuclear reactors–these will need to be stored, but only for a few hundred years, rather than the tens of thousands of years that other nuclear-waste materials need to be stored. The second group is uranium, which contains too little fissile material to be used in U.S. nuclear reactors, but does contain enough for a type of reactor used in Canada. (Canada’s deuterium uranium reactors use deuterium oxide, or heavy water, instead of the light water used in the U.S.. Light-water reactors require enriched uranium.)