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The ‘Clean Power Plan’ still blocks expansion of nuke-generated electricity

The Obama administration’s announcement of regulations requiring every state to craft plans targeting major reductions in emissions from coal-fired power plants has been greeted as a major victory for wind, solar, biomass and other zero-carbon energy sources. As proof of his leadership on the environment and his desire to bequeath action on global warming to future generations, Obama very much wants to present his Clean Power Plan (CPP) as a fait accompli to the international community at a December meeting in Paris.

Nuclear power is not even mentioned, although the plan does provide that states where nuclear plants now are under construction can claim credits toward reducing carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030 (from 2005 levels) before bringing the plants online.

{mosads}The major problem, though, is that the CPP does nothing to change current policies regarding storing and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.

For decades, since President Jimmy Carter banned recycling on grounds that its misuse could lead to a proliferation of nuclear weapons, used nuclear fuel has been considered waste. Today, upwards of 75,000 metric tons of used fuel is stored at nuclear plants around the country, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and electricity generation adds another 2,000 tons every year.

Obama himself stopped construction of a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert, heeding the “not-in-my-back-yard!” objections of former senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). That picture may change after Sen. Reid retires, but meanwhile spent nuclear fuel remains an untapped resource. Used fuel nowadays is held in engineered water pools and concrete-and-steel dry casks at every nuclear-powered plant. Although the cost of storage is low, the plants were designed to generate electricity, not keep watch over large amounts of nuclear waste indefinitely.

Spent fuel from the production of nuclear-generated electricity might not be as sexy as wind and solar power, but it contains valuable materials that can be recycled for further use in nuclear power plants, as is done in France and more than a dozen other countries, including Germany and Japan, which did not adhere to President Carter’s policy. France uses reprocessing to obtain 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, and profits from exporting nuclear-generated electricity to other European countries.

In recent years, the U.S. ban on nuclear recycling has been loosened to permit surplus weaponized plutonium to be converted into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for commercial electricity production as one way of fulfilling an agreement with Russia to reduce stockpiles of weapons-grade materials. Such a reprocessing facility has been under construction at the Savannah River site in South Carolina for a decade, but it is far over budget and the Department of Energy has placed it on “cold standby”. The MOX facility likely never will be finished.

Recycling used fuel from nuclear power plants is much more practical and proven technologies for it readily are available in Europe and Japan. Reprocessed nuclear fuel could generate more electricity without producing any carbon dioxide emissions, while significantly reducing the amount and toxicity of high-level radioactive waste that otherwise needs to be consolidated for storage in a national facility, if one ever is built. Recycling also would add to the global supply of uranium, which is under growing demand pressures as the number of nuclear plants in the world rises.

Nuclear-generated power is at least as reliable as coal-fired power in producing electricity 24/7, far more reliable than the sun or the wind, and has the same zero-carbon footprint as renewable energy sources.

Renewable energy sources stand to benefit from the Clean Power Plan, but only if massive federal subsidies continue. The true winner for the foreseeable future likely is natural gas, which already is replacing the president’s bête noir, coal, at the nation’s power plants. Coal-producing states are considering options to block implementation of the president’s plan, but even if some states do the EPA will step in to impose its own emission-reduction rules on them – unless Congress acts.

Any such congressional action should put used nuclear fuel recycling in its rightful place on the U.S. energy landscape. The positive environmental impact would not just be in the next decade but continue far into the future.

Shughart, research director of the Independent Institute (, is the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business.

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