'White House Buries Yucca," read the headlines last week after Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said the proposed storage of nuclear waste in a Nevada mountain is "no longer an option."
Instead, Mr. Chu told a Senate hearing, the Obama administration will cut all but the most rudimentary funding to Yucca and be content to allow spent fuel rods to sit in storage pools and dry casks at reactor sites "while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear waste disposal."
Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a longtime opponent of the repository, was overjoyed. Environmental groups were equally gratified, since they have long seen Yucca Mountain as a choke point for asphyxiating nuclear energy. Greenpeace immediately called for an end to new construction of nuclear power plants, and for all existing reactors to be closed down.
So is this really the death knell for nuclear power? Not at all. The repository at Yucca Mountain was only made necessary by our failure to understand a fundamental fact about nuclear power: There is no such thing as nuclear waste.
A nuclear fuel rod is made up of two types of uranium: U-235, the fissionable isotope whose breakdown provides the energy; and U-238, which does not fission and serves basically as packing material. Uranium-235 makes up only 0.7% of the natural ore. In order to reach "reactor grade," it must be "enriched" up to 3% -- an extremely difficult industrial process. (To become bomb material, it must be enriched to 90%, another ballgame altogether.)
After being loaded in a nuclear reactor, the fuel rods sit for five years before being removed. At this point, about 12 ounces of U-235 will have been completely transformed into energy. But that's enough to power San Francisco for five years. There are no chemical transformations in the process and no carbon-dioxide emissions.
When they emerge, the fuel rods are intensely radioactive -- about twice the exposure you would get standing at ground zero at Hiroshima after the bomb went off. But because the amount of material is so small -- it would fit comfortably in a tractor-trailer -- it can be handled remotely through well established industrial processes. The spent rods are first submerged in storage pools, where a few yards of water block the radioactivity. After a few years, they can be moved to lead-lined casks about the size of a gazebo, where they can sit for the better part of a century until the next step is decided.
So is this material "waste"? Absolutely not. Ninety-five percent of a spent fuel rod is plain old U-238, the nonfissionable variety that exists in granite tabletops, stone buildings and the coal burned in coal plants to generate electricity. Uranium-238 is 1% of the earth's crust. It could be put right back in the ground where it came from.
Of the remaining 5% of a rod, one-fifth is fissionable U-235 -- which can be recycled as fuel. Another one-fifth is plutonium, also recyclable as fuel. Much of the remaining three-fifths has important uses as medical and industrial isotopes. Forty percent of all medical diagnostic procedures in this country now involve some form of radioactive isotope, and nuclear medicine is a $4 billion business. Unfortunately, we must import all our tracer material from Canada, because all of our isotopes have been headed for Yucca Mountain.
What remains after all this material has been extracted from spent fuel rods are some isotopes for which no important uses have yet been found, but which can be stored for future retrieval. France, which completely reprocesses its recyclable material, stores all the unused remains -- from 30 years of generating 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy -- beneath the floor of a single room at La Hague.
The supposed problem of "nuclear waste" is entirely the result of a the decision in 1976 by President Gerald Ford to suspend reprocessing, which President Jimmy Carter made permanent in 1977. The fear was that agents of foreign powers or terrorists groups would steal plutonium from American plants to manufacture bombs.
That fear has proved to be misguided. If foreign powers want a bomb, they will build their own reactors or enrichment facilities, as North Korea and Iran have done. The task of extracting plutonium from highly radioactive material and fashioning it into a bomb is far beyond the capacities of any terrorist organization.
So shed no tears for Yucca Mountain. Instead of ending the nuclear revival, it gives us the chance to correct a historical mistake and follow France's lead in developing complete reprocessing for nuclear material.
Mr. Tucker is author of "Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey" (Bartleby, 2008).