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An Updated Perspective on the US Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Electric Power Research Institute
Publication Date


There has been a resurgence of interest in the possibility of processing the US spent nuclear fuel, instead of burying it in a geologic repository. Accordingly, key topical findings from three relevant EPRI evaluations made in the 1990-1995 timeframe are recapped and updated to accommodate a few developments over the subsequent ten years. Views recently expressed by other US entities are discussed.

Processing aspects thereby addressed include effects on waste disposal and on geologic repository capacity, impacts on the economics of the nuclear fuel cycle and of the overall nuclear power scenario, alternative dispositions of the plutonium separated by the processing, impacts on the structure of the perceived weapons proliferation risk, and challenges for the immediate future and for the current half-century.

The main conclusions are:

•Near-term US adoption of spent fuel processing would incur a substantial cost penalty. In addition, to reap the major benefit possible to uranium conservation and/or the major reduction possible to required repository capacity, processing would have to be accompanied by deployment of fast reactor plants. But demonstration fast reactor plants to-date has mostly proved expensive and unreliable, which aggravates processing’s economic handicap.

•However, decisions on a possible second repository will not really be necessary until at least mid-century, so there are decades available to see whether an escalating uranium ore price will create an incentive to adopt processing and/or whether engineering development can reduce the costs of the processing scenario. All the existing spent fuel will still, of course, be accessible for processing should that be the decision.

•The nation needs a broad consensus on which processing/fast-reactor technology combination is the best choice to take through as far as a demonstration. Developing and demonstrating an acceptable, affordable and reliable fast reactor appears likely to control the overall schedule and should receive appropriate development program emphasis.

•Whether the US adopts processing or not, if an expansion of US nuclear power is to be part of a global expansion, substantially improved international agreements and safeguards provisions will be necessary.