One of the most interesting things to me in the GNEP meeting the other night was the comments made by Mike Corinco, past VP of Westinghouse-Hanford. At the time our reprocessing research was shut down there were a number of promising technologies that had been demonstrated in experimental settings but never saw the light of day. GNEP would get them back into the pipeline.
The following information comes from a gleaning of Wiki material. The basic reprocessing statistics from today’s technology are these: (from CNIC - Citizens' Nuclear Information Center)
1) The lethality of the waste that remains after reprocessing is 1/8th of that of unreprocessed fuel after 1000 years.
2) The volume of the waste is reduced by 30-40% under that of unreprocessed fuel.
Just by itself this is a step forward, less lethal waste and less volume. But it’s not a clear slam-dunk. The promise of further research and development is new and better ways of reprocessing that reduce the lethality and volume of the remaining waste much more by transmuting the dangerous isotopes in it. It is quite possible that the transmutation process can be combined with additional power production from the recycled fuel. Known technology like Integral Fast Reactors can do this. With the IFR, in theory, you could fuel the reactor once and it would use that fuel (reprocessing it securely on-site along the way) for the full 30-year life of the installation. The minimal remaining waste could be consumed in another similar reactor.
The key trick to selling this I think is to keep the plutonium involved in the process in a form that is usable for power production but useless as a nuclear weapon. The other essential is to keep all the potentially lethal waste under strict control until it is in a form that is benign or is sufficiently safe-guarded for generations to come.
The question we must consider is whether the pursuit of these solutions is better than doing nothing as we are now. Existing reactors are making new waste. Future reactors that we can not stop from being built are going to make more.