A visit to the Argonne National Laboratory to look at the past and future of nuclear recycling.
Greetings from sunny Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where the annoying sound of helicopters taking off at Fort Hamilton this morning is offset by the lovely sight of the cherry blossom branches my mother-in-law dropped off last night after she bought too many. The perks of moving closer to family!
I’m writing to you today to share with you the story of a brief trip I took last October to the suburbs of Chicago, where I tried my first Portillo’s Italian beef sandwich — delicious — and got a crash course in nuclear waste.
All the spent nuclear fuel in the U.S. could fit in one Wal-Mart Supercenter. But there’s enough energy still contained in that waste to power the country for 150 years.
Tapping that energy is another story. After two years in a traditional nuclear reactor, uranium fuel is too contaminated with fission byproducts to sustain an atom-splitting reaction. But the metal still holds about 95% of its energy.
Now a new generation of nuclear companies is designing so-called fast-neutron reactors that can use far more energy from recycled fuel, and reviving hopes of creating an industry here in the U.S. to process and reuse radioactive waste.
In October, I flew to the Chicago suburbs to visit the Argonne National Laboratory, where researchers funded by federal grants and the private reactor startup Oklo are working to commercialize “pyroprocessing,” a method for recycling waste.
Specifically, spent uranium that goes through pyroprocessing could be a key source of fuel for reactors like those Oklo hopes to license.
Right now, the only commercial vendor selling the specific type of “high-octane” fuel (a clunky analogy, but one that helps to illustrate differences in enriched uranium) is a Russian company. While the West has yet to sanction the Kremlin’s nuclear exports, since so few alternatives exist some companies are already delaying their reactor rollouts rather than do business with Moscow.
Britain, France, Japan, and Russia all recycle spent fuel, and the latter’s willingness to take back used uranium for reprocessing appeals to countries that want the benefits of nuclear power without the responsibility of long-term radioactive waste management.
If the U.S. wants to compete with Russia in the nuclear industry, it’ll need to offer some kind of equivalent service. But the U.S. has tried and failed before to set up a nuclear recycling industry. And American regulators haven’t exactly made it easy to license new nuclear reactors, much less launch a whole new sector.
You can read more on the past and future of nuclear recycling here on HuffPost.
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Thanks for reading. Here’s something nice, courtesy of my sister’s partner Jackson, whose record label just signed the artist.