Folly Alert: Congress Poised to Restart Nuclear Waste Reprocessing

While clean-up at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington drags on, it’s hard to believe that the U.S. Congress would embrace a multi-million dollar scheme to begin commercially reprocessing of irradiated nuclear fuel – the very process that caused much of the Hanford mess in the first place.

Yet a little-noticed provision in Senate energy legislation would give $865 million over the next five years to government laboratories, as well as a handful of university and industry partners, to develop and deploy ways to reprocess commercial nuclear fuel by 2015.

Reprocessing is an innocuous term for extracting plutonium from nuclear waste, which could ostensibly be reused to fuel nuclear reactors. Proponents claim that this process offers a magical way to deal with the growing stockpiles of nuclear waste that are located at 103 nuclear reactors around the country. This wishful thinking should not fool anyone familiar with the costly environmental tragedy at Hanford.

A total of five reprocessing plants once operated at Hanford, producing plutonium for Cold War military purposes. They left behind millions of gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste, stored in leaking underground tanks at risk of fires and explosion. Massive quantities of so-called "low-level" radioactive waste, another byproduct of the process, were mostly discharged without controls, contaminating groundwater and the Columbia River. And then there are the millions of curries of radiation contained in the stockpiled capsules of solidified cesium and strontium that have been described as the most lethal source of radiation in the United States, except for the core of an operating nuclear reactor. The Department of Energy’s dubious plan for addressing this mess is in line to become the biggest budget clean-up project in U.S. history.

The moral of this story is that reprocessing will not make nuclear waste disappear. Plutonium makes up just 1 percent of nuclear waste. So removing the plutonium leaves most of the radioactive material, which must be isolated from people and the environment. What’s more, reprocessing itself generates new waste, including radioactive liquids and gases that are even more difficult to deal with than waste that has not been reprocessed. The Nuclear Control Institute estimates that conventional reprocessing increases the volume of radioactive waste in need of permanent disposition by at least a factor of ten.

As if the waste problems associated with reprocessing weren’t bad enough, there are other reasons why extracting plutonium from nuclear waste is not such a good idea. Once isolated, the plutonium – which remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years – can more easily end up used by terrorists in dirty bombs or nuclear weapons. That’s exactly why three decades of U.S. nonproliferation policy has banned commercial reprocessing of nuclear waste.

Current efforts to reverse this ban exemplify not only bad policy but also bad timing. International diplomacy efforts are presently aimed at talking North Korea out of its plans to restart nuclear reprocessing facilities to feed a nuclear weapons program. Here at home, we’re told that the country faces an unprecedented threat from terrorists, who may possess nuclear material. If they don’t, they’re certainly looking for it. Reversing the U.S. ban on reprocessing runs contrary to post-9/11 efforts to reduce national security risks. It would set a dangerous global precedent, encouraging other countries to create risky plutonium industries and undermining nonproliferation goals at a crucial moment of global instability.

This harebrained plan is outlined in Senate energy legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Lawmakers should learn from the problems caused by Hanford reprocessing, oppose these provisions, and prioritize clean-up of existing nuclear sites instead of creating new ones. The people of this country deserve a safe, clean and affordable energy future, not a dependence on Cold War nuclear technologies that threaten health and safety worldwide.

TAKE ACTION! Contact your Senators and urge them to oppose funding for nuclear waste reprocessing technologies in the energy bill (S.14). Call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Send a free fax and find out more at