By Richard Valdmanis and Timothy Gardner
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) -Recycling radioactive waste from nuclear power has security and cost challenges but the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would be able to monitor the process should more countries take that path, the IAEA head said this week.
Increased efforts to fight climate change and soaring power costs in parts of the world have renewed interest in nuclear power, raising the likelihood of an expansion of the industry after years of low investment because of safety concerns.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, for example, sees nuclear energy as a critical in tackling emissions in the world's second-biggest greenhouse gas producer, and is exploring recycling as a way to boost domestic supplies of nuclear fuel and reduce waste.
When asked about nuclear reprocessing, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi downplayed the chances it would become a reality in many new places soon.
"I don't see many really looking seriously into reprocessing," Grossi told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt.
"Reprocessing is a very difficult technology that requires a lot of infrastructure." Grossi added that "of course it has a proliferation angle."
But he said if new countries pursue reprocessing, the IAEA will work to ensure it is safe.
"Nobody will be doing reprocessing without the IAEA being involved," he said, noting that any nuclear waste recycling North Korea is undertaking is an exception.
Reprocessing involves converting plutonium and uranium in spent nuclear fuel into new nuclear fuel. Proliferation experts say the practice could provide targets for militants looking to make a crude nuclear weapon.
Former President Ronald Reagan lifted a moratorium on U.S. nuclear waste reprocessing 1981, but costs have prevented plants from opening.
Security is also a worry. While France, the United Kingdom, and a handful of other nations already practice reprocessing, supply chains in the United States could be longer and more vulnerable, proliferation experts say.
The U.S. Energy Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, aims to develop a dozen projects to recycle spent nuclear fuel in the United States as part of the broader U.S. policy to boost the industry.
Last month it granted $38 million for reprocessing to companies including GE Research, the development part of General Electric Company.
A U.S. Department of Energy spokesperson said the department "examines all sides of the nuclear fuel cycle at the R&D stage to help enhance fuel performance, reduce waste generation, and limit proliferation risks, and beyond research always works with the IAEA to move nuclear forward."
The United States stores nuclear waste in pools and in casks of steel and concrete at reactors sites across the country, after a decades-long effort for a long-term waste dump in Nevada failed.
(Reporting by Richard Valdmanis; additional reporting and writing by Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Barbara Lewis)