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Reprocessing Nuclear Waste

Despite interest initiated by the Bush administration in reviving commercial reprocessing—the separation of uranium and plutonium from irradiated nuclear fuel—this is not a solution to the country’s nuclear waste problem. Reprocessing—sometimes incorrectly called “recycling”—is simply the separation of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. This process is extremely expensive, poses a security threat, and contaminates the environment. Most importantly, reprocessing cannot solve the nation’s nuclear waste problem.

The proposal under the Bush Administration, called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), would make major changes to U.S. policies regarding the global management of spent nuclear fuel. Although GNEP is being framed as a “non-proliferation” program and a radioactive waste solution, the reality is that reprocessing will undermine U.S. nonproliferation efforts and increase our nuclear waste problems. Currently, technologies do not exist for the "proliferation resistant" reprocessing, the fast neutron reactors, or the plutonium fuel that would be necessary to carry out this plan.

Under GNEP, the U.S. would import and reprocess foreign spent fuel in the United States. There is no place for reprocessing waste to be permanently stored. Reprocessing other countries’ spent fuel would only increase the amount of highly radioactive waste that the U.S. would have to manage.

While the DOE says that it has no analysis of the total costs of GNEP, the National Academies of Science estimated in 1996 that the costs of reprocessing and transmutation of irradiated fuel that has already been produced by existing U.S. reactors “easily could be more than $100 billion.”

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