The Chinese government just announced they’ve made a breakthrough in nuclear fuel reprocessing technology that would increase the reuse rates of nuclear fuel by 60 fold. Though nuclear power remains a touchy subject in the United States, countries around the world — like France, the UK and Russia — are turning to it as a ready-for-the-market technology that can wean them off coal-fired power plants in order to reduce emissions. Reprocessing, disposal and mining are at the top of the list of nuclear energy concerns, but if China’s new breakthrough proves fruitful it could help to diminish the problems that arise with all three.
At present 70% of China’s energy comes from coal-fired plants — that’s a lot of energy driven pollution — and they are making strides to change that number. The country currently has about 10 gigawatts of nuclear energy generation capacity and hopes to increase that to 40 gigawatts by 2020. However, at that increase rate — and with current technology — China’s supply of uranium would only last them 50-60 years. As Chinese Central Television noted, “with the new technology, China’s existing detected uranium resources can be used for 3,000 years.” This new development has Chinese authorities bringing their 2020 nuclear energy generation mark up to 80 gigawatts.
Costs, technology and the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation have impeded the use of nuclear fuel reprocessing in the past. Though the Chinese government is holding close the secrets of how exactly this new technological breakthrough works, it would definitely solve the second problem on that list. They’ve announced nothing about the cost of the technology but if it truly extends their uranium resources 3,000 years, it would possibly have a payoff down the line — however expensive it might be now. Opponents of nuclear power state that uranium mining is extremely destructive, and while this technology could greatly reduce it, it doesn’t solve a lot of their other concerns. We’ll have to hold tight until we see the scientific merits of this new reprocessing technique before we jump on board. Nuclear power is historically an extremely touchy process and adding a complex element to its production could open a whole new door to nuclear power plant disasters.