Spent Fuel is too valuable to be Nuclear Waste

About the potential energy value in spent fuel, and in the world stockpiles of depleted uranium.

'When in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.' This describes the dominant environmental activist characteristic when faced by rational science of any kind. One could also add 'And never acknowledge the facts'.

This is especially true concerning the subject of nuclear waste management or disposal of relatively trivial quantities of well-managed waste; recycling spent nuclear fuel; or even admitting that nuclear power is the most socially valuable, cost-effective, versatile, capable, safe, and environmentally friendly of all of our reasonable primary energy options. Use of nuclear power does not lead to risk of war nearly as much as our increasing reliance upon politically unstable sources of expensive oil and gas, as several of the last few wars have shown.

What is Spent Fuel?

Uranium fuel that has been in a nuclear reactor at power, typically from about 1 year (CANDU) to about 6 years (PWR, BWR) or more (marine propulsion reactors - 20+ years), and which is then discharged from the reactor core, is described as 'spent' fuel.

The difficulty with this definition is that even this once-through fuel is NOT 'spent' in the true sense of the word. It is still a massive potential source of energy. 'Spent' fuel from commercial reactors still contains from 95 to 99% of unused uranium that can be and is re-cycled and re-used in some countries, but not in the U.S. although it once was.

If fully utilised, each kilogram of uranium could produce 3.5 million kWh of electricity rather than about 50,000 to 250,000+ kWh(e) as at present (about 7,800 MWdays (thermal)/tonne (CANDU) to about 45,000+ MWdays(th)/tonne - PWR).

However, even if not reprocessed in the short-term, the resource does not disappear or become worthless just because it has been through the reactor for only one cycle instead of many. Discarding it or managing it as ëwasteí, does not make it waste, as it is still a highly valuable resource.

Whether it is recycled in the short or long-term, is immaterial, as it can be (and will be) re-cycled and re-used in the future. It is extraordinarily valuable for its unused energy content, and it doesn't suddenly disappear from society as some seem to believe or would like to see. This will happen, once the politicians recognize that they will eventually have to make some difficult decisions about energy, and with them, their likelihood of re-election if they get it wrong. This recently happened in California, and it is likely to confront Governor Schwarzenegger in short order, maybe even this coming summer, even if he can eventually turn the political steamroller around.

Whether spent fuel actually gets put into the Yucca facility or not, is several years away (maybe 2015 now), and is also still very much up in the air, though few politicians would dare to admit it. Its fate can change with the stroke of a political pen or a court decision. If, through political inertia, spent fuel is placed into Yucca, it is worth taking bets as to how long it will reside there before it is recovered and re-processed in our rapidly changing, and increasingly vulnerable and politically-manipulated, energy climate.

We may choose not to recycle it at this time, but our descendants are likely to view any spent fuel we might discard, as a gold-mine of energy. Leaving it out of Yucca is the best thing we could do for everyone, so I hope the various activists don't realize that their obstruction to Yucca is desirable in some ways even though their concerns and fears are more science fiction than anyone inside of our Hollywood-media entertained populace (Silkwood, China Syndrome, Mutant Ninja Turtles) might believe.

The potential energy value in 'spent' nuclear fuel is 'impressive'

The use of individual fuels to produce electricity is compared in Table 1. It also shows the energy density of our common fuels along with a rough comparison of their fuel costs to produce 1 gigawatt-year (1,000 MW(e) for one year) ñ 8,760,000 MWh - of electricity.

At today's approximate electricity value (about $40/MWh for baseload electricity), the gross ultimate electrical value of the use of 1 tonne of various significant fuels is:

  1. From nuclear fuel - natural uranium and once-through (as used in a CANDU reactor) - the gross potential electrical value is about $2,000,000 per tonne of natural uranium (costing about $29,000/tonne), for a ratio of gross value to cost of about 70. (Uranium recently reached a high of about $35,000/tonne)


  2. From nuclear fuel - enriched and once-through (PWR) - the gross potential electrical value is about $10,000,000/tonne of uranium, ($10 million!) with uranium costing $29,000/tonne, for a ratio of gross value to cost of more than 300.


  3. From nuclear fuel - enriched, with total recycling - the gross potential electrical value is about $140,000,000/tonne of uranium, ($140 million!) with uranium costing $29,000/tonne, for a ratio of gross value to cost of about 4.8 million. However, reprocessing and fuel re-fabrication costs are also high. With the fast breeder cycle and reprocessing, not only can the spent fuel resource be re-used, but so can the 7 tonnes or so of depleted uranium produced during enrichment, per tonne of fuel, and this is also potentially worth about $140E6/tonne!


  4. From coal (about $120 worth of electricity, per tonne of coal, with coal costing about $35 per tonne) for a gross electrical value to cost of 3.4. The potential energy value of the uranium and thorium in the discarded bottom ash (sometimes above ore grade for uranium) is worth up to several thousand times more than the energy value of the coal itself before it was burned. Discarded coal ash (billions of tonnes), is typically a significant, but usually ignored, uranium/thorium resource of immense future value and significance - at least in a rational, technological society - and should be managed with this in mind;


  5. From heavy oil (about $160 worth of electricity, per tonne of oil, with heavy oil costing about $120/T) for a gross electrical value to cost of about 1.3;


  6. From natural Gas (about $240 worth of electricity from burning 1 tonne of natural gas, costing about $270/tonne when the price is just $5/GJ) for a gross electrical value to cost of 0.9, at this time! It was much better with gas at $2/GJ. With gas costs bouncing around above $5, and especially above $6 or $7/GJ, using gas for electricity, rather than for space heating (still cost effective), is not too smart unless you can charge a lot more than $40/MWh - which is usually the case - or operate with much greater than 40% efficiency. (One gigajoule (GJ) is almost the same as a million BTUs.)

But back to uranium. It comes out of the ground, is purified, refined, converted to yellowcake, and then sells for about $29,000/tonne (about $13/pound, or about $29/kg). It is usually then enriched to become 3% to 4% U-235 fuel that costs about $200,000/tonne in the reactor (plus fabrication costs), with about 7 tonnes of uranium-238 (depleted uranium) rejected and stockpiled (Table 2). In one pass through the reactor, which takes up to about 4 to 6 years, this 1 tonne of enriched fuel produces about $10,000,000 worth of electricity, despite only about 3% of it being fissioned (used) by the time of discharge. The depleted uranium is generally regarded as relatively worthless, even though it is far from this.

Now, would anyone - who claims to be rational - willingly choose to bury a refined product (spent fuel) that even after one cycle of use, still has a future potential gross electricity value of at least $130,000,000/tonne (or about 260 billion dollars for each year's worth of U.S. spent fuel) and is recyclable? It would be like junking a Mercedes after driving it for a few days. Even pure gold is worth only $14,000,000/tonne, and look how we protect and recover that.

Consider these approximate figures (assuming the resources were all used to produce electricity, for ease of comparison):

  1. Each year's worth of U.S. spent fuel (2,000 tonnes), still contains about the same energy (electrical) potential value (7E12 kWh)(e)), as we actually derived in 2001 from all of our use of coal (555 millions of tonnes of oil equivalent, Mtoe ñ megatonnes of oil equivalent), oil (896 Mtoe), and natural gas (555 Mtoe) combined (about 8E12 kWh(e), assuming about 30% efficiency of use). And we propose to treat it as dangerous waste because a small part of it is highly radioactive for a relatively short time!
  2. The depleted uranium (very low specific activity - i.e. not very radioactive) that we produce and stockpile (about 20,000 tonnes each year, containing about 7E13 kWh(e) of potential electrical energy equivalent), contains about one fifth of the energy contained in the entire Middle East oil reserves (almost 100E9 tonnes (BP statistical review), or about 3.72E14 kWh of potential electrical energy equivalent). (Thermal energy equivalents are 3 times higher).


  3. The total U.S. refined DU stockpile so far (about 610,000 tonnes by 2002), sitting at the surface and neglected, though managed, potentially contains 2E15 kWh of electrical energy, or about 5 times the potential energy contained in the entire estimated Middle East oil resource.


  4. The world combined spent fuel and DU total to about 2002 (about 240,000 tonnes of spent fuel, and about 1.45E6 T of DU respectively) most of which is sitting at the surface, is highly refined and contains enough potential energy (about 6E15 kWh of electrical energy equivalent) to make the entire known oil reserves (excluding the very significant tar sands and oil shales) of the whole world look very limited.

This analysis could go on, and evaluate the potential energy contained in the total world estimated uranium resource at increasing resource prices (including ocean uranium), and include the thorium resource, but I think I made my point already. Any spent fuel placed into Yucca would be worth (potentially) more than all of the gold in Fort Knox (Hollywood blockbuster anyone? But Iíll be the technical advisor)! We're hording the wrong stuff folks! We should be recycling, reprocessing, and re-using this energy resource as befits a rational, technologically-advanced, energy-intensive society, so increasingly dependant upon energy imports.

To neglect it (as we do with DU), or to consider putting such a massive amount of potential wealth and energy back into the ground, and to behave as though it were waste - as is still considered for spent fuel - defies logic, especially when it can be safely and easily re-cycled.

The accumulated surface-stored stockpile of DU so far (Table 2), is potentially worth (for its untapped electrical energy) about $83 trillion in the U.S. alone, or about 8 times the value of the U.S. annual economy. It is sitting around, when it could all be eventually brought back into an advanced reactor cycle as originally planned, researched and defined almost 60 years ago, and exploited to the very great benefit of everyone. Rather than do this, however, we continue to agonize and moan about uncertain and high priced oil supplies from mostly unstable suppliers abroad; the availability and supplies of natural gas; and terrify ourselves about the possible extreme environmental effects from burning coal and other fossil fuels. Surely it is also time that we began to get concerned about the socially destructive aspects of having insufficient or unaffordable energy. Go figure!

Ah well! So much for environmentalist cant about recycling everything, and being concerned about resources, sustainability, waste, pollution, energy conservation, Global Climate Change, and the environment.