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Upton: Spent Nuclear Fuel Should Be Harvested

In February, as the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors were lighting and heating homes coast to coast, officials in the new administration signaled that they were pulling the plug on the Yucca Mountain repository for spent nuclear fuel. An alarmingly swift demise for Yucca Mountain despite 20 years of planning, more than $10 billion spent and more than $33 billion collected from ratepayers.

[IMGCAP(1)]In its haste, the administration neglected to address alternative plans to store spent fuel or express a thoughtful vision for the future of nuclear — it simply shut down work at Yucca Mountain, with complete disregard to the scientific community’s seal of approval on the integrity of the repository. It is confounding that the administration would pursue such a drastic shift in nuclear policy without offering viable solutions for managing spent fuel from the 104 reactors that dot the landscape in 31 different states.

With two nuclear plants just miles from my doorstep in southwest Michigan, I know firsthand the vital role nuclear plays throughout the nation. Responsible policy dictates that spent nuclear fuel should be located at one site, deep within the bedrock of Nevada’s Mojave Desert for thousands of years rather than in temporary stockpiles scattered across the country.

Despite the motives behind the shuttering of Yucca Mountain, it does ignite a vigorous debate over how to manage spent fuel, which is an urgent matter of national security. While I remain a staunch advocate of Yucca Mountain, we should also take advantage of this opportunity to embark on a recycling program for spent nuclear fuel and essentially make nuclear a renewable resource.

France, Britain and Japan all enjoy great success using recycling technology originally developed in the United States, yet we are foolishly not using this technology. Nuclear power is already a zero-emission source of baseload power. Through advanced technologies that reduce the volume, heat and toxicity of used nuclear fuel, it is possible to separate the usable uranium from the spent fuel.

With current technology, an individual’s lifetime footprint of spent fuel is about the size of a soda pop can. Using proven recycling technology, we’ll be able to reduce the volume 95 percent to that of a Kennedy half dollar.

Earlier this year, Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas) and I introduced a bill that authorizes the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Waste Fund to enter into long-term contracts with a commercial company to recycle spent fuel from utility reactors. This common-sense legislation would harness recycling technologies that our nation developed but were politically derailed decades ago.

Employing these exciting technologies will allow us to not only extract more power from uranium but also dramatically reduce the amount of spent fuel that will demand storage.

In addition to the environmental benefits, nuclear recycling would create thousands of high-paying jobs here at home. With our legislation, utilities will save money thanks to new competition in the fuel market as they reduce reactor site storage problems. The waste fund would save money because paying a company to recycle the fuel shrinks the volume and radioactivity of what ultimately goes into geological storage.

The recycling plant would be run entirely by a commercial, for-profit company that would win the competitive bid based upon the best overall value to the waste fund. But the company would actually have two sets of customers: the waste fund and the utilities that buy back reprocessed fuel.

The bill also safeguards against proliferation of materials that could be used in nuclear weapons and directs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to expedite rulemaking that would establish a licensing process for the facility.

While supplying just 20 percent of our electricity, nuclear power accounts for an extraordinary 70 percent of our nation’s emissions-free electricity. It defies reality to ignore nuclear power as a reliable solution to addressing climate change, as it already plays a commanding role in cutting greenhouse gases. Now is not the time to turn our back on nuclear power.

Not only can nuclear lead the way in our efforts to cut greenhouse gases, but a commitment to nuclear power over the next few decades could also be the engine driving our economic recovery. As a consequence of not having constructed a new nuclear facility in more than 30 years, an entire manufacturing sector has been shuttered and we have seen a majority of nuclear component-construction and manufacturing jobs migrate overseas. We now have a unique opportunity to bring those jobs back home.

According to data from Oxford Economics, building 100 new nuclear reactors and an appropriate number of enrichment and reprocessing plants over the next 20 years would create more than 1 million new jobs.

With nearly 30 new nuclear reactors in the pipeline, the United States is on the cusp of a nuclear renaissance that will create countless jobs at a time when our nation endures near double-digit unemployment. These new plants will also boost our supply of clean and green baseload power. But without restoring some sanity to our nation’s nuclear policy, we risk never realizing the full potential nuclear has to offer. The administration’s diversion from Yucca Mountain is a step in the wrong direction. Bringing spent fuel recycling back to the United States could just be the answer we are all searching for.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment.

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