To Reprocess or Not?

Reprocessing, the chemical process of separating plutonium and uranium out of spent nuclear fuel, creates both reusable nuclear materials and a small amount of highly concentrated waste. The recovered fissile material is used to manufacture new fuel rods for nuclear reactors, while the remaining waste is solidified and disposed of. Based on a variety of factors, each country weighs the pros and cons of reprocessing and determines the feasibility of recycling spent fuel.

There are several benefits to reprocessing spent fuel. For countries with a limited amount of naturally occurring uranium, such as Japan, reprocessing is an integral part of the nuclear fuel cycle. Reprocessing extends the life of available uranium, and in some countries it is seen as a very efficient use of energy. For example, one gram of recycled plutonium can produce the same amount of electricity as one ton of oil. For those concerned about the large amount of spent fuel produced by nuclear reactors, reprocessing is also an effective way to significantly reduce the amount of waste to be disposed. After reprocessing, only about three percent of the original quantity of nuclear material remains unusable, high-level waste.

In other countries, the drawbacks to reprocessing are seen to outweigh the benefits. The United States is among the nuclear nations that do not reprocess spent reactor fuel. A brief experiment in reprocessing at the West Valley plant in New York failed, and in 1977 President Carter indefinitely deferred reprocessing of commercial nuclear waste. This decision was based primarily on the concern that the plutonium created in reprocessing which can be used to build nuclear weapons would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. Economic concerns also played into the decision not to reprocess. In the U.S. and elsewhere, it is less costly to mine raw uranium than to recycle spent fuel.