More taxes, please

I’ve finished Day 1 of a 3-day seminar on the future of nuclear energy at UT-Knoxville School of Journalism, sponsored by the McCormick Foundation.

A hot (literally) topic is reprocessed fuel. There are some national security issues, but the main problem with reprocessing spent fuel rods is the economics. In today’s market, mined uranium is cheaper than reprocessing the fuel rods, and even natural gas apparently is competitive.

Meanwhile, we have a massive national debate over the storage of nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain appears to be dead, so tons of spent fuel rods are filling cooling pools and stored in casks at Browns Ferry and other plants.

Reprocessing provides no financial incentive to producers currently, but the nation — and the nuclear industry as a whole — has a huge interest in reducing the volume of nuclear waste. Reprocessing accomplishes that goal.

Once the technological kinks are worked out — that is, once we copy France’s successful reprocessing efforts — I wonder if we need to increase the disincentive of waste accumulation for producers. Fill up as many casks as you want with spent fuel rods, but pay a per-ton tax for the waste. The goal would not be to raise revenue, but to make sure the price of nuclear-derived energy reflects the full societal cost of waste disposal. The expected result would be an increase in reprocessing which, in addition to reducing the troublesome waste, would help preserve the world’s finite uranium supply.

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