An Analysis of the Consolidated Fuel Treatment
Center Nuclear Reprocessing Initiative
Energy Policy Final Paper
June 4th, 2008
Octavia Biris, Kyle Gracey, Katy Huff, Wai Keong Ng
In the context of international concern over the carbon footprint of the electric power
industry, it is difficult to ignore nuclear power as a virtually emissions free energy solution. The
relative abundance of uranium versus the quickly depleting fossil fuel resources, the high energy
outputs of small quantities of uranium fuel, the reliability of nuclear power plants as base load
generators are further advantages of nuclear power over other conventional or “green” power
generation technologies. However, the management of nuclear reactor waste and nuclear
weapons proliferation concerns remain the main obstacles against nuclear power expansion in
many countries, including the United States. Nuclear power expansion will become more
acceptable to the public only if these issues are addressed.
Our paper analyzes the Consolidated Fuel Treatment Cycle (CFTC), an initiative of the
United States‟ Department of Energy and of the Global Nuclear Partnership to make nuclear
power more sustainable. CTFC is based on the premise that the current approach to nuclear
waste and proliferation in the United States, to store spent nuclear fuel from reactors in
geological repositories, with minimum processing, cannot be sustained in the next decade. The
program seeks to develop a way of separating the high-energy components of nuclear waste in a
way that precludes nuclear proliferation. The next step is burning the components in different
reactor technologies, both to reduce their volume and to use up their remaining energy. If
successful, this approach of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel will revolutionize current
reprocessing technologies which do not possess enough safeguards against nuclear proliferation.
We analyze CTFC by doing an overview of the scientific principles behind the different
research and development proposals in the program, and by comparing these reprocessing
methods to other nuclear waste management approaches. We then present the economic aspects
of reprocessing using CFTC, and the political support for CFTC and reprocessing versus other
nuclear waste management solutions.
Nuclear fuel and fission
Fuel for commercial nuclear power plants consists of uranium oxide pellets stacked in tubes
(rods) made of an alloy of zirconium, known as cladding. Fuel rods are bundled together to form
hundreds of fuels assemblies, which form the reactor core in a nuclear power plant.
The uranium isotope U-235 is the fissile material that sustains the controlled fission in
commercial reactors. Fission (the breaking of the large U-235 nucleus into lighter nuclei, giving
off energy and neutrons capable of sustaining a new reaction) occurs when a neutron strikes the
U-235 nucleus. Since fission is more likely to occur with slow neutrons, water is used as a
stopping and medium for neutrons. Water also controls the fission process, by cooling the
Most commercial nuclear reactors around the world are light water reactors (LWR), which
use water in its natural state (H2O), or heavy water reactors (HWR), which use water with high
proportion (sometimes up to 100%) of the deuterium isotope of hydrogen (D2O). In commercial
LWR, fuel is a mixture of uranium isotopes, of which 3% is U-235 and 97% U-238. However,
heavy water reactors (HWR) can use fuel in which U-235 is only 0.7% of the uranium mass
(same as in naturally found uranium), the rest being U-238. HWR can sustain fission despite the
low percentage of U-235 because the neutrons are slowed down more effectively by heavy water.
Light water reactors are most common in the United States and are cheaper to build than
heavy water reactors, while maintaining comparable power generation capabilities. They are also
inherently safe: if the temperature in the reactor increases beyond operational limits, the density
of the water decreases and it becomes less effective in slowing down neutrons, thus decreasing
the probability of fission. We chose to discuss the fuel cycle in light water reactors because of
their advantages and widespread use. The CANDU reactor considered in one of the reprocessing
proposals is a type of heavy water reactor.
Inside the reactor, most of the U-235 splits into fission products and neutrons, giving off
large quantities of energy. However, only some of the neutrons generate new reactions; some are
deflected by atoms and are stopped by the metal cladding, causing damage to the cladding over
time. More importantly, other neutrons are absorbed by the U-238 atoms, and cause the uranium
to transmute into heavier elements, known as transuranics (TRU). Plutonium (see reaction
below), neptunium, americium and curium are some of the highly radioactive transuranics
recycled to make new fuel or considered as candidates for reprocessing.
U238 + n U239 (unstable) Pu239 + e- + energy
Some fission products absorb neutrons, but are too light to fission; thus, they act as neutron
captors and decrease the efficiency of the reactor. In the long run, the reaction is no longer self-
sustained when the absorption cross-section increases past a certain level and the reactor runs out
of fissile isotopes. To keep an LWR power plant on the grid, it is necessary to replace 25% of the
fuel every 12 to 18 months1.
The removed fuel rods, containing uranium (96% of SNF mass), transuranics (1%) and other
fission products (3%), become “spent nuclear fuel” (SNF). Although of no use in a reactor, SNF
is highly radioactive, hot, and radiotoxic for many thousands of years.
Nuclear waste in the world
Radioactive chemical elements that no longer have any practical purpose, yet are hazardous
to human health and the environment, are found in several industrial waste types. The nuclear
fuel cycle, from mining and enrichment of uranium to burning in fission reactors, is the most
http://www.chemcases.com/2003version/nuclear/nc-10.htm on nuclear reactors
well-known and discussed source of radioactive waste. However, other activities, such as coal
mining, oil production, nuclear weapons reprocessing and nuclear medicine produce large
quantities of radioactive waste. Although our paper will discuss spent nuclear fuel (SNF), the
radioactive products resulting from fission, the concerns for SNF storage and/or reprocessing are
better understood in the general context of the worldwide radioactive waste problem.
Internationally, radioactive wastes are classified in three categories, based on level of
activity per unit mass or unit volume2. The fission products in spent nuclear fuel rods from
commercial reactors fit in two of these categories.
Low-level waste (LLW) comprises wastes from industry and nuclear medicine (i.e. paper,
filters, protective equipment, tools), contaminated with low amounts of short-lived radioactive
chemicals. The radioactivity levels are so low that these wastes sometimes do not require
shielding during handling and storage, can be compacted or incinerated, and disposed of in
shallow land burials. Strontium and cesium- in SNF fit in this category, and could be disposed of
as LLW if separated from SNF.
Intermediate Level Waste (ILW) is of higher activity and in most cases requires
shielding. Waste can come in the form of chemical sludge, damaged fuel cladding, or parts of
decommissioned reactors. This category is used only in European regulation of radioactive
High Level Waste (HLW) describes most radioactive components of SNF. It comprises the
transuranics, as well as other highly radioactive and thermally hot fission products. Although the
mass proportion of these wastes is low, they account for over 90% of SNF radioactivity.
According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 442 operating reactors in the world.
400,000 metric tons of nuclear waste is produced worldwide every year, of which 12,000 t is
high level waste. In the United States, there are 53,000 t of SNF in storage to date. Every year,
the 103 operational nuclear reactors in the United States put out an additional 2,100 t of SNF.
As worldwide and U.S. energy demand is predicted to increase in the next 25 years, we can
reasonably expect that nuclear power will at least maintain its share of the energy mix. However,
if the scenario by which the number of nuclear reactors will increase proportionally to energy
http://alsos.wlu.edu/qsearch.aspx?browse=issues/Nuclear%20Waste; Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
needs holds, so will the amount of waste that will have to be disposed of. In the United States
alone, stored SNF is predicted to double by 2035 (119,000 t) if energy demand doubles and
nuclear power plants maintain their share of 20% of power generation capacity.
Approaches to nuclear waste management
Spent nuclear fuel can be disposed of in geological repositories, or it can be recycled
(reprocessed). Disposal of SNF without any reprocessing is called a “once-through”, or “open
fuel cycle”, while recycling is known as a “multi-pass” or “closed fuel cycle”3.
The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, because SNF usually undergoes treatment
before it is put into repositories, to prevent the high level waste from interacting with the
environment. Conversely, the waste from one or more reprocessing cycles is treated and placed
into repositories. The most common form of treatment for highly radioactive waste is
vitrification – the mixing of waste with aqueous or organic compounds like sugar, and turning
the mixture into water insoluble glass, inside storage cylinders. Other methods are ion exchange,
meant to concentrate radioactivity into a smaller volume, and the Australian Synroc (synthetic
rock), which immobilizes actinides (TRU), and lower activity fission products in different
Once the United States moved away from reprocessing and allowed only the open fuel
cycle approach in the late 1970‟s, nuclear power plant companies became unable to reprocess
the SNF that accumulated in the spent fuel pools at reactor sites. Consequently, they sought
temporary storage technologies, until more permanent storage/recycling technologies become
commercially viable. Dry cask storage technology was developed privately and authorized by
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the late 1980‟s. Dry casks are steel cylinders with bolted
or welded lids, in which HLW SNF is placed after being left to cool and decay in spent fuel pools
at power plants for a year. The SNF core of the cylinder is insulated by inert gas. There are
several designs of dry casks, produced and marketed by government regulated private
companies. Dry casks have been designed as a temporary storage solution, as they are guaranteed
to be leak-tight for 100 to 200 years. Their temporary character, as well as the proximity of cask
storage facilities to populated areas continues to draw concern and criticism.
DOE Spent Nuclear Fuel Recycling Program Plan, May 2006, p. 8
As a solution to the problem of temporary and de-centralized storage facilities, the DOE
has proposed a permanent national repository for nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain. By law,
Yucca Mountain is planned to store 63,000 t of waste. Additional considerations, meant to limit
storage per area, to protect the metal insulation of the storage chambers from radiation damage,
restrict this quantity. The quantity of waste in temporary storage almost reaches the projected
Yucca Mountain capacity, if one accounts for an additional 2000 t of nuclear waste from nuclear
submarine reactors. In case Yucca Mountain is opened, it may be able to accept new spent fuel
for 2 or 3 more years, in addition to what is already in temporary storage.
Sustainable Fuel Cycles and the CFTC
In addition to producing large volumes of waste, the unsustainable once through method
currently used in our nation's reactors extracts only 5% of the energy that we are currently able to
extract from the input fuel. New initiatives by the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership suggest a
closed nuclear fuel cycle that will incorporate a recycling system composed of a separation
facility (CFTC or NFRC), a fuel fabrication facility (AFCF), and a pyroprocessing Advanced
Burning/Recycling Reactor (ABR or ARR). In this report we discuss the proposed plans for the
CFTC separations facility as well as the fuel fabrication and pyroprocessing associated with each
SNF Separation Technology
Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) from current generation commercial light water reactors (LWRs)
contains a large amount of still fissionable material, but has accumulated neutron absorbing
fission fragments to such a degree that the nuclear chain reaction has ceased to be self sustaining.
Thus, it must be separated into its component parts before its fissionable elements may be
refabricated into reusable fuels. The component parts of LWR SNF can be summarized as
depleted Uranium (~96%), fission fragments (< 3%), and transuranic actinides (TRUs, <2%).
The TRUs at hand are primarily Plutonium (Pu), Americium (Am), Neptunium (Np), and Curium
(Cm) and are alpha emitters. As such, the United States Government classifies TRUs as a high
level form of waste (HLW). Fission fragments which decay by mostly beta and gamma emission
are also high level waste. On the other hand Depleted Uranium has a very long half life and once
separated it is considered low level waste (LLW).
PUREX and Proliferation
The most well-understood reprocessing technology to-date is PUREX (Plutonium and
Uranium Recovery by Extraction), developed in the 1970‟s. The reprocessed uranium and
plutonium can be recombined and used in thermal reactors in the form of uranium and plutonium
oxide mixed fuel (MOX). Currently, France, the U.K., Russia, India and Japan use PUREX to re-
PUREX can separate a mixture of plutonium isotopes from SNF (Pu-238, 239, 240 and
241), of which only Pu-239 is weapons-grade. Pu-239 is difficult to separate industrially from
the plutonium mixture resultant from most LWRs, but with specialized front-end reactors or
more intensive back-end separations, weapons grade plutonium is extractable, and could be
villainously diverted to weapons programs. Furthermore, if the extracted plutonium is
geologically stored, isotopic separation can occur naturally, over time. The other plutonium
isotopes not used for weapons have a shorter half-life than Pu-239, so Pu-239 concentration
increases in a PUREX plutonium repository left to decay. Although the half-lives in question are
of the order of thousands of years, the concern remains that PUREX chemical repositories can
become weapons-grade plutonium mines.
PUREX is not used in the United States, because of these nuclear proliferation risks
associated with it. Since 1977, the United States considered SNF reprocessing to be the highest
proliferation risk, suspended reprocessing activities and discouraged civilian power plant
PUREX reprocessing internationally. Although civilian reprocessing activities banned in 1977
were made legal again under the Reagan administration, the U.S. still adheres to the principle of
not separating plutonium from SNF. Lack of reprocessing research and development grants in the
1970‟s and 1980‟s has delayed the development of a commercial-scale reprocessing method
other than PUREX.
Proliferation Resistant Separations Methods
The industry teams working under contract with the Department of Energy are considering
several separation technologies. UREX+ is a national laboratory technology, primarily developed
at Argonne. COEX and NUEX on the other hand are the processes conceived by private
companies (Areva and Energy Solutions, respectively). These processes, by never separating
pure plutonium, differ importantly from PUREX. In avoiding the separation of pure plutonium,
proliferation concerns are largely diverted, so pursuit of these technologies is a high priority for
companies interested in United States government support.
The co-extraction COEX process, developed by the French company AREVA is modeled
after PUREX and has the main goal of producing a mixed Uranium and Plutonium oxide (MOX)
output fuel. Plutonium and Uranium are extracted together in equal amounts so that Plutonium is
never extracted alone. They are then oxidized together in order to fabricate a MOX fuel that will
ultimately be consumable by light water reactors. COEX also separates a pure uranium stream.
COEX leaves other minor actinides with the fission products. This final stream is ultimately
destined for the geologic repository. A variation of this separates americium and curium from the
fission products (France).
NUEX is quite similar to COEX, also having been modeled after PUREX. It separates
uranium and then Plutonium with the TRUs all together, but separates the fission products
separately. The primary separations process in NUEX is flexible and can be organized to produce
pure uranium and a mixture of plutonium and neptunium like the UREX+1 process or organized
to produce a pure uranium stream and a stream of mixed uranium, plutonium and neptunium. It
can also mimic the COEX process by outputting pure uranium and a mixture of uranium and
plutonium. These chemical techniques can all be performed interchangeably in the same
extraction equipment. Initially, NUEX will be used primarily to create MOX fuel for current
LWR and HWRs, but ultimately can produce a TRU fuel for the ABR with Americium and
curium that are recovered using TRUEX technology developed by Argonne. NUEX has yet to be
tested on a commercial scale, but can be expected to operate with success similar to COEX.
The uranium-extraction UREX+ aqueous separations technologies are a numbered (+1
through +4) assortment of methods all of which separate actinides and fission products in groups
of varying proportionality. UREX+1a, the method most seriously considered for the CFTC
separates the TRU actinides, fission fragments, and Uranium into three distinct waste streams. In
order to assuage proliferation concerns, UREX+1a uses a complexing acetohydroxamic acid
(AHA) to keep the TRUs inextricably together with Plutonium4.
The fission fragments Technetium-99 and Iodine-129 are separated so that they may be
made into transmutation targets for fast reactors. The TRUs Np and Pu are oxidized together
either for eventual use in a fast reactor or fabricated into a MOX fuel proven in 2005 to be
consumable by current LWRs5. Finally, the Uranium is either disposed of as a Class C Low
Level Waste or oxidized eventually re-enriched (also for use in LWRs). This method has not
been tested on a commercial scale in the manner in which PUREX has been, but the only
concern so far has been with a lanthanide contamination in the final steps of extraction. Argonne
has, in the last two years, successfully shown a 99.9% efficiency in overcoming this
contamination, however, and the technology seems to be well understood and nearly
immediately deployable due to its relative independence from the ABR.
Industry Expressions of Interest
In the interest of formulating a plan for the design and implementation of the CFTC, the
Department of Energy solicited “Expressions of Interest” in 2006 from sections of the nuclear
industry. With an initial funding input from GNEP, four teams, INRA, Energy Solutions, GE-
Hitachi, and General Atomics developed plans over the next two years in which they describe
what they believed to be the most efficient and feasible reprocessing plans scientifically and
economically for the United States and GNEP to adopt. These Expressions of Interest were made
public on May 28, 2008, and here we summarize the scientific goals of each.
Constituted of Areva, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited, INRA
is the International Nuclear Recycling Alliance. They suggest a phased plan involving at first
only a 800 tHM/yr CFTC.
Report to Congress, Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative: Status Report for FY2005. DOE, ONEST, Feb 2006.
The separation facility will use the COEX (co-extraction) process in which they have a
particular business interest, as COEX was developed by Areva and relies heavily on learned
experience from the reprocessing technologies used primarily at the LaHague reprocessing
facility in France and secondarily those in Japan, Russia, and Britain. The main distinguishing
characteristic between the two processes is that COEX never fully separates Plutonium, instead
separating it from the rest of the spent fuel together with an equal amount of Uranium. U and Pu
are then, as a mix, converted to their oxide forms and used for fuel fabrication. These oxides will
be fabricated into MOX fuel usable to a certain degree in both LWRs and the ARR. Another
output of the COEX process is a metal actinide fuel, for use in ABRs. The only waste generated
from the COEX process will be the accumulating quantity of unreprocessed fission fragments at
the end of each separations cycle. The implicit suggestion is that it will be necessary to place this
small but highly radiotoxic volume of fission fragments directly into the geological repository at
By modeling their recycling facility directly after LaHague in France, INRA is able to
suggest a nearly immediate implementation deadline of 2023. The comparatively low capacity of
their processing technology, they hope, will be overcome by an ambitiously flexible
upgradability that they intend to employ by using as much already understood technology as
possible. Though INRA is taking a baby-steps method they propose to reach a 2500 t/yr capacity
CFTC by 2070.
The American and Japanese conglomerates, General Electric and Hitachi pooled their
nuclear energy departments and have since become a single entity, GE-Hitachi. This entity has
suggested what they call an NFRC Electrometalurgical cycle. That is to say that they would like
to the primary goals of the Nuclear Fuel Recycling Center (this is their preferred new publicly
attractive title for the CFTC) to be the consumption of Light Water Reactor waste through the
production metallic fuels. Specifically, GE-Hitachi suggests the production of CANDU uranium
bundles and PRISM actinide bundles. These metal fuels are made with the separated uranium
and actinides, respectively, from spent nuclear fuel. Unlike INRA's COEX plan, GE-Hitachi will
rely on the UREX-1a method. In this method, fuel is separated into fission fragments, uranium,
and mixed actinides. This way, too, of course, plutonium is never separated by itself, but is
constantly inextricable from the other highly radioactive actinides (Am, Cm, Np…).
Once separated, GE-Hitachi suggests that the fission fragments go to the geologic
repository and the rest be used for fuel. This implies a 95% volume reduction of SNF from the
current once through cycle, but the heat of fission fragments will have an impact on the filling
strategy of Yucca Mountain, and will not imply the 20-fold capacity increase that intuition would
Energy Solutions, LLC.8
Under the plan developed by Energy Solutions, Americium and Curium would be separated
and fabricated into CANDU target fuel. The separated Uranium would not necessarily need to be
enriched to be fabricated into fuel fissionable by CANDU reactors. This lowers the demands on
technological development in the fuel fabrication part of the fuel cycle discussed earlier called
the AFCF. Thus, the choice to incorporate CANDU reactors allows for swifter implementation of
the Energy Solutions plan than would have otherwise been possible. In a longer term plan they
suggest the fabrication of MOX fuels which could be reused by LWRs and metal fuel fabrication
and the Advanced Reactors that can use them.
NUEX is the separations plan suggested by Energy Solutions. Energy Solutions holds the
United States patent rights to PUREX and in much the same way that COEX is based on
PUREX, NUEX is also a process based on the PUREX method. The results of NUEX are a
quantity of depleted Uranium, a Uranium/Plutonium mix, and an Americium/Curium mix.
The Energy Solutions goal will be to conduct this type of reprocessing for the next 30 years
without any attempt at construction of an ARR pyroprocessing fast reactor. This way, some
technological development can be expected to make that a more achievable goal by the time it is
General Atomics would like the GNEP initiative to focus more heavily on hydrogen
production for energy. While this may at first seem to be outside the realm of the nuclear fuel
cycle, they in fact suggest quite an effective integration of their GenIV MHR (modular helium
reactor) technology. They will call the pyroprocessing combination of the Advanced Recycling
Reactor and the MHR the “Actinide Management Island.” The MHR is a reactor of higher
efficiency than the light water reactors that are currently used and can take TRISO fuel from
reprocessed SNF as an input. In addition to this, the output from the MHR that is being
suggested is 'well-suited' as an input for the Advanced Recycling Reactor. This is to say that the
neutron spectrum achievable in the ARR is comparable to the spectrum necessary to degrade the
TRUs that the MHR outputs. The so called “Deep Burn” MHR is also a favorable reactor design
for hydrogen production applications, so, as the creators and purveyors of this technology,
General Atomics is keen to phase out Light Water Reactors with the MHR design across the
board. They suggest a UREX+1a separations process for use in producing TRISO fuel. They use
the perk of hydrogen production capability to make it attractive for the GNEP fuel cycle
initiative. For a total capital cost of $8.3 B and by they year 2020, General Atomics expects its
plan for the CFTC to have a 2500 t/yr capacity at 80% efficiency. They hope to produce (with an
input of 2000 t/yr SNF) 2300 t/yr U oxide, 18 t/yr of TRU oxides, and 110 t/yr of waste. They
suggest a Sodium cooled Fast Reactor as the ARR.
In considering the feasibility of the CFTC, there is also a need to examine the economic
viability of such a facility, especially in relation with other potential waste handling methods.
Since the final form of the CFTC is as yet undetermined, a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis
taking into account all possible technologies is not feasible. Hence, we should consider and
evaluate the benefit streams which would arise from such a facility. The potential benefit of a
facility of any given scale (based on the amount of waste processed annually) can then be
calculated and compared against the cost estimates provided by interested firms in their
As previously mentioned, the CFTC facility will accept the input of spent nuclear fuel (SNF)
from conventional light water reactors. From this input, the CFTC can potentially produce three
1) Fuel for use in conventional light water reactors
2) Transuranic fuels for use in Advanced Burner Reactor (ABR)
3) Fission products
Based on the volume of inputs and outputs produced, we can estimate the potential benefits of a
facility of a given scale. Also, while it is beyond the scope of this paper to consider how the
potential benefits of research and development (which will likely accrue as lower costs in future
facilities) might be estimated, it should be noted that considering the inputs and outputs alone
would likely be an underestimate given the potential gains from this area.
Based on the above, we anticipate three streams of benefits from the facility:
1) Value of fuel, both conventional and transuranic, produced
2) Value of waste handling
3) Value from increased nuclear energy use enabled by such a facility.
We shall consider each of these benefits in turn.
Value of Fuel
As the main objective of the CFTC, fuel reprocessing would net transuranic fuel for use
in the ABR. At the same time, it is very likely that fuel could be produced as part of the CFTC
for use in conventional reactors. Hence, the value of useable fuel resources that is produced
represents the most concrete output of the facility. In evaluating the benefits of extracting these
fuel resources from SNF, we should take into account the energy content of the potential outputs
of the CFTC. This should be compared to the energy value of natural uranium as a means of
determining the relative value of obtaining such resources.
MOX fuel is currently the most common product of spent fuel reprocessing plants. A
blend of uranium and plutonium oxides, it is a substitute for the lightly enriched uranium that is
used in most conventional light water reactors. With minor modifications, many reactors in the
US can be fueled in part by MOX and there is a global demand from existing reactor operators
for the fuel as well. Based on tested technologies, the 850 metric tons of fuel currently being
recycled in France per year nets materials for 100 tons of MOX fuel10. This represents an energy
World Nuclear Association, “Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX)”, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf29.html.
content equivalent to about 700 tons of raw uranium (or about 820 tons of U3O8 – the form it is
most commonly traded in), worth more than $100,000 based on current spot prices11 of U3O8.
Since the CFTC could potentially process up to three times the amount of waste, it could net
materials for up to 300 tons of MOX annually. Given the potential for uranium prices to increase
as supply decreases, the benefits of being able to generate such a quantity of MOX fuel would
Reprocessed uranium, which forms the bulk of SNF, contains significant concentrations
of uranium isotopes that are unsuitable for use in light water reactors. Given the current prices of
uranium ore, the processing of reprocessed uranium for use in conventional nuclear reactors is
not cost-efficient. However, this situation might change as natural uranium become more
expensive to extract. Again, the value of reprocessed uranium that might be extracted from SNF
by the CFTC could be derived from the value of natural uranium which contains the equivalent
amount of energy. A facility with the annual processing capacity of 1500 tons is able to produce
almost 1450 tons of reprocessed uranium, which is equivalent to about 1700 tons12 of U3O8
(worth approximately $230,000 at currently prices).
It is more difficult to consider the value of the transuranic fuels that will be produced by
the CFTC since the nature of this fuel would depend on the type of ABR design chosen for
construction. However, the same method employed for MOX fuel or reprocessed uranium might
be applicable since the CFTC is in this case also extracting the energy resources in SNF for use
in the ABR.
Value of Waste Handling
However, apart from merely a facility for the production of new fuel, the CFTC will also
have a significant impact on the waste management situation in the country. Under the current
plan, the more than 50,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel that has already been accumulated in the
US will be deposited in the Yucca Mountain repository which currently has a capacity of 70,000
tons, 63,000 of which is earmarked for civilian nuclear waste. The CFTC is a means by which
the repository function of Yucca Mountain can be expanded without raising this statutory limit
The Ux Consulting Company, LLC, UxC Nuclear Fuel Price Indicators,
WISE Uranium Project, Recycled Nuclear Fuel Cost Calculator, http://www.wise-uranium.org/nfccr.html.
on it capacity.
Unlike other methods of waste management proposed, such as dry cask storage, the
CFTC is genuine long-term solution to the problem of nuclear waste since it has the potential to
vastly decrease the amount of waste that eventually requires storage (down to 3% of the original
mass). In estimating the value of this function of the CFTC, we can assume that the benefit of
handling a particular amount of waste is captured in the cost of the current Yucca Mountain site.
Specifically, we assume that the cost per ton of waste storage at Yucca Mountain should reflect
the minimum benefit of reducing the current stock of spent fuel by that amount.
In this way, a facility which is able to reducing the amount of waste that requires storing
to 3% of its original mass will net the total benefit of handling 97% of that waste. Based on 2001
estimates, the total cost of the Yucca Mountain site is about $57.5 billion dollars13 (in 2001
dollars). Since civilian share of that cost is approximately 73%14, assuming that the limit of
63,000 tons is not raised, the storage of each ton of waste would cost roughly $670,000
(approximately $810,000 in 2008 dollars15). Even if limits were raised to the proposed 135,000
tons16 (at no significant additional cost), each ton of waste stored would still incur a cost of
approximately $377,000 (2008 dollars).
Since the project is on-going, we assume that the benefit from storing the waste is valued
at least as much as the cost of doing so, which we estimate to be between $377,000 and $810,000
per ton. Given that the CFTC could potentially handle up to 2,500 tons of spent nuclear fuel each
year, a plant operating from 2012 to 2050 at that capacity would net a benefit from waste
handling between $8 to $19 billion (at an annual discount rate of 7%).
Value from increase nuclear energy use
At the same time, the potential for the CTFC to expand the Yucca Mountain repository
also enables the expansion of the nuclear power industry to meet growing energy needs. Given
Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Analysis of the Total System Life Cycle Cost of the Civilian
Radioactive Waste Management Program, May 2001, http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/about/budget/pdf/tslccr1.pdf
(accessed June 3, 2008).
Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, Nuclear Waste Fund Fee Adequecy: An Assessment, May
2001, http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/about/pm/pdf/feeadr1.pdf (accessed June 3, 2008).
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Consumer Price Index Home Page, http://www.bls.gov/CPI/.
Steve Tetreault, “Yucca Mountain: DOE: Enlarge repository,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, October 5, 2007,
http://www.lvrj.com/news/10257277.html (Accessed June 3 2008).
that the current capacity of Yucca Mountain is barely sufficient to store the waste already
accumulated and the proposed increase in the statutory limit of Yucca Mountain will only
accommodate the waste produced by existing reactors that have mostly received license
extensions, an alternative waste management strategy is necessary to allow new construction of
nuclear power infrastructure to meet growing energy needs.
The Energy Information Administration (EIA), in its 2008 Annual Energy Outlook report,
predicts a 1.1% average annual rate of increase in electricity consumption17. The report, which
extends only to the year 2030, also predicts a slight decline of nuclear energy use as a percentage
of total electricity production even without taking into account the reduction in nuclear power
generation that will occur as the current generation of reactors are decommissioned. Also, the
lack of an alternative waste handling strategy causes serious doubts in any plan to increase the
use of nuclear energy beyond current repository limits for SNF. Hence,
However, given the cost advantages of nuclear energy if environmental considerations are
taken into account18, a vast reduction in the use of nuclear energy could potentially be a costly
outcome. The CFTC, insofar as it represents a means of allowing the use of nuclear energy to be
sustained beyond the capacity of the Yucca Mountain repository to handle SNF is a means by
which these environmental costs can be averted. This function of the CFTC will start to accrue
benefits once the capacity of Yucca Mountain is reached. A facility capable of handling 2000
tons of waste annually (which is roughly the amount of SNF currently generated in the US each
year) would allow (conservatively based on current technologies) the generation of 800 million
mWh of electricity. The additional environmental cost of diverting this amount of electricity
generation to either coal or natural gas (the most plausible options) could amount from anywhere
between $7.8 billion to almost $60 billion19 for carbon emissions alone.
In order to capture the total benefits of the CFTC, the three streams of benefits described
above should be summed. However, in doing so, it is important to note the timing of each stream
of benefits and ensure they are properly discounted. The benefits from fuel reprocessed and
Energy Information Administration, “Annual Energy Outlook 2008 (Early Release) – Electricity Generation
Department of Energy, The Economic Future of Nuclear Power: A Stidy Conducted at the University of Chicago
– Summary, August 2004, http://www.anl.gov/Special_Reports/NuclEconAug04.pdf (accessed June 3, 2008).
waste handled will only start to accrue after the facility begins operation and the environmental
benefits of the CFTC as a means of enabling continued use of nuclear energy will only accrue
when the facility becomes the primary means of waste disposal (potentially after Yucca
Mountain is filled if existing waste is not reprocessed).
A hypothetical plant with 800 ton capacity operating from 2025 to 2085 is likely to
accrue between $1.2 and $2.6 billion of benefits in term of waste handling and, if reprocessing
became the main waste management strategy, between $12 to $98 billion worth of environmental
benefits from reduced carbon emissions over its lifetime. The present discounted value of energy
resources extracted is insignificant compared to the other two streams of benefit. Hence, it is
clear that the benefits from the facility are likely to be significant. Even without considering the
potential environmental benefits of the CFTC, the facility still provides significant benefit in
terms of waste reduction, thus fulfilling one of its key objectives.
The Politics of Nuclear Waste
From before construction of the first commercial power plant, the federal government has
regulated nuclear waste. In particular, the government has long struggled with how to deal with
the United States‟ buildup of waste.
For example, over the last 18 years, Senators and Representatives in Congress have
introduced 821 bills designed to regulate nuclear waste in some way. A majority of these related
to controlling how the military handles nuclear waste, where the United States will store its
waste long-term, whether or not waste will be reprocessed, and what requirements are imposed
on nuclear power plant operators in how they handle their waste20.
However, while Congress has made offered many solutions to dealing with nuclear waste,
only a fraction of these have received serious consideration. Only 534 of the 821 bills introduced
actually saw any type of vote in a chamber of Congress. Of these, only 62 actually made it out of
Congress and went to the President for his signature. Most of these were appropriation or
authorization bills that funded and approved existing military and civilian nuclear activities but
Thomas. The Library of Congress. http://thomas.loc.gov. Searches performed 1 June 2008.
did not necessarily move forward in developing solutions for long-term waste storage or
reprocessing. Thus, while Congress has considered the subject frequently and intensely, it has not
made significant progress21.
States, similarly, have made little headway in addressing nuclear waste, though this is to
be expected. Regional electricity production exceeds the jurisdiction of any one state to regulate,
and the federal government has deemed nuclear waste regulation a national issue. States do
regulate nuclear waste to some extent internally, such as by imposing some restrictions on waste
transport and to what degree citizens have access to information about waste within their state,
but largely they cannot control the movement or storage of waste.
For example, on May 21, a federal judge overrode a Washington ballot initiative
regulating waste importation into the state. Initiative 297 had prevented the federal government
from importing additional radioactive waste to the site until cleanup of the existing waste at the
Hanford Nuclear Reservation finished. A judge for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that
federal law preempted the state law22.
Similarly, Yucca Mountain, selected in 1987 to store the country‟s nuclear waste,
originally expected to accept waste starting in 1998. The revised start date now begins in 201723.
Part of this delay has been due to legislation by the Nevada government to slow or stop the
construction and opening of the site. For example, in 2002, then-Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn
vetoed a Department of Energy certification24 to proceed with Yucca Mountain as the nation‟s
definitive nuclear waste storage site25, though Congress soon overrode the veto26. Nevada has
similarly passed laws attempting to constrain Yucca Mountain development by, for example,
limiting the use of groundwater to operate a spent nuclear fuel repository and blocking the
transport nuclear waste in the State27. On June 3, the Department of Energy submitted Yucca
“Now Taking Reservations.” Grist Magazine. 22 May 2008.
“Nuclear Waste Policy Act as amended with appropriations acts appended.” March 2004. Available at
http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/documents/nwpa/css/nwpa.htm. Accessed 1 May 2008.
United States Department of Energy. “Recommendation by the Secretary of Energy Regarding the Suitability of
the Yucca Mountain Site for a Repository Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.” February 2002.
Available at http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/ymp/sr/documents.htm. Accessed 1 May 2008.
Rogers, Keith and Tetreault, Steve. “Yucca Mountain: Guinn vetoes Bush.” Las Vegas Review-Journal. 9
Clerk of the United States House of Representatives. “Final Results for Roll Call 133.” 8 May 2002.
United States Department of Energy. “Final Environmental Impact Statement for a Geologic Repository for the
disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at Yucca Mountain, Nye County, Nevada.”
February 2002. 4.1 (83).
Mountain‟s site license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nevada officials said
they remain determined to block Yucca‟s opening.28
The Nevada Congressional delegation has also long fought to end the government‟s
interest in Yucca Mountain. In the Senate, both Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John
Ensign oppose the use of the site.
“It is time to move past Yucca Mountain. The project is expensive. Now is not the
time to squander money, resources, and time on a project doomed to fail.”
John Ensign, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, October 31,
“We will not let the people of Nevada be put at risk by the storage or
transportation of the nation’s nuclear waste – not now and not ever.”
Harry Reid, Yucca Petition drive kickoff, May 28, 2008
Nevada‟s House delegation of two Republicans and one Democrat has expressed similar concern
over the project29.
At the same time, Members of Congress from embattled states like Nevada and
Washington have had less to say on reprocessing as a way of lessening the volume of waste
requiring long-term storage. While some, such as Senator Ensign, have supported reprocessing
in theory30, or, like Congressman Jon Porter (R-NV), have visited reprocessing facilities in
France31, they have not specifically pushed for reprocessing. This likely stems from their
constituents‟ opinions, as citizens tend to oppose sites such as Yucca and Hanford in their own
states, but do not advocate strongly or uniformly for a particular alternative.
The federal government has similarly made modest progress in considering reprocessing.
Currently no commercial reprocessing plants exist in the United States. While the Department of
Energy has selected the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to process 34 tons of weapons
grade plutonium into reactor-usable fuel, it has no plans or capability to reprocess the spent
nuclear fuel currently stored at the nation‟s commercial nuclear reactors32.
Vartabedian, Ralph. “U.S. seeks the go-ahead for Nevada nuclear dump.” The Los Angeles Times. 4 June 2008.
“Nevada asks NRC to reject plan for nuclear dump drip shields”. Press Release. 17 April 2008. Available at
http://porter.house.gov/?sectionid=181§iontree=3,10,181&itemid=1012. Accessed 1 May 2008.
“Ensign Testifies Against Yucca Waste Dump in Nevada.” Press Release. 31 October 2007. Available at
http://ensign.senate.gov/record.cfm?id=286632. Accessed 1 May 2008.
Mascaro, Lisa. “Porter urged to get full picture on nuclear waste in France.” Las Vegas Sun. 7 January 2008.
United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Frequently Asked Questions About Mixed Oxide Fuel.” 13
February 2007. Available at http://www.nrc.gov/materials/fuel-cycle-fac/mox/faq.html. Accessed 1 May 2008.
Rather, U.S. attention has focused on the formation of the Global Nuclear Energy
Partnership (GNEP), announced in 2006. The project aims to create an international agreement
to reprocess fuel for commercial reactor use and make it incompatible with weapon production.
A small number of countries with the most advanced nuclear capability would reprocess fuel and
ensure its availability to other countries wishing to generate power by fission. Recipient
countries would have guaranteed supplies of nuclear fuel, but would agree to not reprocess or
enrich nuclear material themselves33.
Twenty-one countries have signed on to the agreement34, though many others have
resisted, concerned that they will lose autonomy over their own energy production. Expanding
GNEP to all countries with nuclear ambitions will require designing packages of incentives to
persuade them to accept a designated fuel supplier. GNEP would also not eliminate the need for
nuclear waste storage in the U.S.,35 but could reduce it in the long-term.
Government attention paid to the Consolidated Fuel Treatment Center lags even beyond
that of reprocessing generally. Although CFTC should play a major role in the successful
implementation of GNEP, it has received limited discussion in Congress, aside from a few
hearings in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee36 37 38
and the tacit support of
some Representatives whose districts made the shortlist for siting the CFTC39. In all likelihood,
Congress and the Executive Branch will make modest progress in addressing nuclear waste for
the remainder of the year, making the opinions of the presidential candidates on the subject
Senator Hillary Clinton sees expanded renewable energy generation and improved energy
efficiency as faster methods for addressing global warming. She expresses concerns about
nuclear cost, safety, disposal, and proliferation, but supports it in theory as part of the U.S.‟s
continued energy mix. She opposes Yucca Mountain, and has instead suggested convening a
United States Department of Energy. “Global Nuclear Energy Partnership Strategic Plan.” January 2007. 4-10.
Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. Available at http://gneppartnership.org/. Accessed 1 June 2008.
Dorgan, Byron and Domenici, Pete. “Dear Colleague” letter. 31 October 2007.
United States Senate. “Oversight Hearing on NRC‟s Regulatory Responsibilities and Capabilities for Long- and
Short- term Spent Fuel Storage Programs: Testimony of Louis Reyes.” 14 September 2006.
United States Senate. “Hearing on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership: Testimony of Neil E. Todreas.” 14
United States Senate. “Oversight Hearing on NRC‟s Regulatory Responsibilities and Capabilities for Long- and
Short- term Spent Fuel Storage Programs: Testimony of Admiral Frank L. „Skip‟ Bowman.” 14 September 2006.
“Paducah Makes Short List for GNEP Study.” Press Release. 29 November 2007. Available at
http://whitfield.house.gov/News/press.aspx?id=171. Accessed 1 May 2008.
panel of scientific experts to recommend a preferred solution for managing existing and future
Senator Barack Obama similarly opposes Yucca Mountain. He also expresses tacit
support for nuclear as a tool in combating climate change, but wants to address cost,
proliferation, disposal, and public right-to-know issues before supporting an expansion of
nuclear power. His solution for waste resolves around the expansion of dry-cask storage until a
long-term disposal solution develops41. He specifically advocates for the use of the most modern
dry-cask storage technology available, such as that under development at Knolls Atomic Power
Laboratory. With either candidate, the CFTC‟s construction seems unlikely.
Senator John McCain, in contrast, supports nuclear power expansion as a central strategy
to combat global warming and reduce dependence on foreign energy sources42. He supports
Yucca Mountain as the destination for U.S. nuclear waste, and would like to see 20 new nuclear
plants under construction by the end of his first term43. He has not specifically addressed how to
handle the additional waste that such an expansion would generate. He has stated that the U.S.
could reprocess its waste, while not explicitly including this strategy in his energy and
Future political movement on waste policy is uncertain. State delegations will
undoubtedly continue to oppose storing waste in their state. The rest is highly uncertain, and will
largely depend, in the short term, on the outcome of the November 2008 election. With
Democrats currently expected to expand their majority in the House and probably the Senate45, a
Republican President will face significant opposition, whereas a Democrat may have a rare
opportunity to advance his or her waste management strategy significantly. Whether that strategy
will result in a long-term reduction in temporary waste storage, or include the CFTC, remains
“Powering America‟s Future: Hillary Clinton‟s Plan to Address the Energy and Climate Crisis.” p. 6.
“Barack Obama‟s Plan to Make America a Global Energy Leader.” p. 4
“Climate Change.” Available at http://www.johnmccain.com/Informing/Issues/da151a1c-733a-4dc1-9cd3-
f9ca5caba1de.htm. Accessed 20 May 2008.
Sunnucks, Mike. “Nuclear plants, free trade, tax cuts, Iraq win, Bin Laden death on McCain wish list.”
Phoenix Business Journal. 15 May 2008.
Little, Amanda Griscom. “John McCain.” Outside. 2007.
Killian, Linda. “Will the Democrats gain in Congress?” The Boston Globe. 18 May 2008.
The facts outlined above show CFTC to be technologically feasible and economically
beneficial. The future benefits are sizeable, and the costs could be minimized by choosing the
technological approach that could be implemented as soon as possible and has the lowest
research and development costs and risks. Among the expressions of interest, INRA is the most
technologically conservative and highly based on the experience of the reprocessing industry in
other countries. Since it has the nearest projected demonstration date, it may be the first to be
implemented commercially, thus allowing benefits to accrue sooner.
Despite the favorable scientific outlook, the economic viability and the political decisions
behind reprocessing and the CFTC may cause delays or suspension of the current effort. The
political uncertainty is a key obstacle since the economic benefits of the CFTC, while potentially
significant, are highly uncertain. A political decision to abandon the CFTC, besides incurring a
loss in terms of previous investments, would also prevent any of the potential benefits of the
facility from being realized, which would be a serious setback both in the push for greater
nuclear power generation capacity and in terms of R&D in this field.
Hence, it is very important that the individual proposals submitted by the private sector
are carefully examined, which would involve a more specific treatment of their technical
feasibility and their economic benefits, in order to determine the course of action that best
maximizes the net benefit of the CFTC.