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An Arizona Highway to Thorium and Recycling

arizona_highways.17231 So, what’s up in Arizona?

The Senate Committee on Water and Energy narrowly passed SB 1134, a bill that classifies "nuclear energy from sources fueled by uranium fuel rods that include 80 percent or more of recycled nuclear fuel and natural thorium reactor resources under development" to be a renewable-energy source.

That’s pretty specific, since Arizona’s nuclear plant Palo Verde uses neither recycled nuclear fuel or thorium – in fact, no American nuclear plant does. And about labeling nuclear renewable: while it does some of the same things that hydro, solar and wind do, it’s not renewable. Rather, it’s sustainable, meaning that uranium is not depleting at a rate that’s worth worrying about, but it’s not (essentially) infinite, either. It makes sense to consider nuclear energy as part of a “renewable” energy plan, because they are focused on an energy source’s emissions profile, but the semantics can get a little knotty if you let them.

Anyway, the specifics of the bill suggest a bit of micromanaging, but it really isn’t a directive to Palo Verde at all. The goal here is different. Note the second paragraph:

As it stands now, the Arizona Administrative Code R14-2-1801 says nuclear and fossil fuels are not renewable resources. But Senator Steve Smith, a Republican from District 23, and the main sponsor of SB 1134, would like that to be changed.

He told the committee that by not recycling nuclear fuel rods like some European countries do, Arizona is missing out on a lot of potential energy. "Basically we just want to burn that energy twice," he said, and should Arizona decide to incorporate that technology in the future, this bill would allow us to count that as a renewable energy source.

Smith definitely has the right idea here, but it’s more aspirational than practical currently and I’m not sure using recycled fuel or thorium is any more helpful to reaching the goal Smith is pursuing than what Palo Verde does now – recycling can be a goal in itself, of course, but that doesn’t seem to be the main idea. Ensuring that Arizona pushes the EPA to include existing nuclear energy plants in the agency’s carbon emissions rules would be more of the moment (which may be happening, of course). Still, support for expanding nuclear energy is always welcome and Smith’s effort is certainly welcome. Let’s see what happens with this.


Gail Marcus said…
While it is true that the "fuel" for solar and wind power is renewable, don't forget that every energy source requires systems to capture the energy, and those systems sometimes require non-renewable materials. Wind, in particular uses rare earths that are in limited supply. See for example my discussion in:

Gail Marcus
Jim Van Zandt said…
Technically, solar energy is not infinite either. And petroleum is renewable over geological timescales. So "renewable" is not a good criterion for energy sources. We should instead cite the side effects and the time we expect it to last.
Atomikrabbit said…
FYI, the CE System 80 plants at Palo Verde were designed, although not currently licensed, to use 100% MOX fuel - so I think the argument they are using recycled uranium is easily made.

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