Posting in Energy
France does it. China does it. Should the U.S. reignite its program to reprocess spent nuclear fuel? The former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission thinks so.
Like the nuclear waste itself, what to do with it seems an everlasting problem. Nobody wants it in their backyard, and with more nuclear plants potentially coming online, we'll have more of it around.
Speaking at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting over the weekend, Dale Klein suggests a change of mindset regarding the country's more than 60,000 tons of radioactive waste. Klein, the former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), sees it as a resource rather than a waste.
After all, not all of what is considered nuclear waste can be painted with the same brush of day-glo paint. It can be anything from low-grade waste of contaminated equipment to high-level radioactive materials from the military, of which the U.S. has about 7,000 metric tons.
Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel involves extracting the uranium and plutonium from fission products and other leftovers to be used again to fuel nuclear reactors. According to Klein, this reduces the volume of waste that needs a resting place as well as lowering its radiation level.
A reprocessing plant, however, would be expensive and Americans may balk about bringing one to their community, whether it created jobs or not. Critics also point to nuclear proliferation, with the plutonium products getting in the wrong hands.
Klein, who is the now associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Texas System, said:
It is not waste. The waste is in our failure to tap into this valuable and abundant domestic source of clean energy in a systematic way. That's something we can ill-afford to do.
While it is true that the plutonium in recycled nuclear fuel is fissionable, no country in the world has ever made a nuclear weapon out of low-grade plutonium from recycled high burn-up nuclear fuel. It just doesn't work for a strategic or a tactical nuclear weapon.
Other countries, including France, are in the reprocessing game. The U.S. had been, too, but in the 1970s the Carter Administration ended the reprocessing program.
Today, we would argue that we do not know whether spent fuel is a waste product or a resource. If the world continues to build once-through LWRs [light-water reactor], it can be treated as waste and simply disposed of in a geological repository, but if the industry in the U.S. and worldwide switches to self-sustaining uranium breeder reactors, then spent fuel will become an important resource, providing the raw material to be enriched and produce new fuel.
President Obama's FY 2012 budget includes $36 billion in loan guarantee authority to give a push to the domestic nuclear industry. Whether U.S. policy embraces reprocessing, we'd still need a repository for some radioactive materials. As far as a central, super long-term storage facility, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has crossed Yucca Mountain off the list of options. France, about 80 percent of its electricity through nuclear energy, may also have one of the first long-term geological repositories for radioactive waste by 2025.
Just last week, the states of New York, Vermont and Connecticut sued the NRC over its policy of keeping the waste on-site for 60 years after a nuclear plant shuts down. About 121 temporary facilities in 39 states contain the materials now.
Recommendations by the DOE's Blue Ribbon Commission, which is charged with the task of addressing the waste disposal issue, are expected this summer.
Related on SmartPlanet:
- What France plans to do with its nuclear waste
- Turning radioactive waste into glass
- Nuclear waste? Not in Yucca’s backyard
- China to develop a greener nuclear reactor
Image: Flickr/TahoeSunsets, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Hanford
Feb 21, 2011
How about money? Let's start at the beginning. Do you know how much it would cost to create a facility big enough to reprocess spent fuel rods? The same complexities that makes cost skyrocket for nuclear power plants are identical for the reprocessing plants that have been attempted in the US and abroad. Once again, construction delays, cost overruns and the need for loan guarantees by the billions will be the order of the day, and in this case, the probable multinational corporate benefactor won't even be based in the United States. ARENA, the French reprocessor has been hard at work in the lobbying halls of congress to get the laws changed to open up the US market. Then there is the actual reprocessing: not only does it create a huge amount of unusable waste in order to extract the re-usable fuel; in France, they don't even re-use it --they ship it to Russia, trading it for natural uranium that has been enriched. Why is this? Your guess is as good as mine, but the bottom line is that it is not re-used for good reasons. One thing is for certain: it's certainly going to be more expensive to go down this path than even just continuing to dry store the spent fuel rods, which I agree is not a good long term solution. And then there's all of the plutonium. What are the French doing with it? Stockpiling it. For what? Originally, they were going to use it in fast breeder reactors, which has been abandoned primarily for economic reasons. Then they were going to put it back into new MOX fuel rods and this has not turned out well, either. So what will we do with it in the US? No fast breeder reactors around to use it--unless we want to spend untold billions building one of those, and I don't think there is political will to do that. Store it, stockpile it? Fine. Add it to the military-level security that we're already spending to secure our existing nuclear liabilities. And who pays for that? You guessed it: yet another public subsidy--the taxpayer foots the bill. If you take the actual amount of money spent on this incredibly expensive, complex and critical infrastructure needed to support the nuclear power industry, from cradle to glowing grave, and applied that same money to a system of decentralized power production across our country, we would be more secure, have a more stable power supply, have more real jobs, and have more individual and collective freedom. But with our limited resources, we can't have both. The choice of which path to take seems very clear.
What the rest of the world decides to do with reprocessing technology (ie. making bombs) should not dictate what we do with reprocessing. The Plutonium we would make from reprocessing would go right back into nuclear fuel. You hit it on the head when you stated that rogue states ESTABLISHED weapons programs using reprocessing. They didn't steal the plutonium. They used a good technology for less than desirable outcomes. You also mentioned the concern about nuclear material being diverted from power programs to weapons programs. This is also a non issue in the US. We already have a surpluss of weapons material and absolutely no need to get more as we are currently getting rid of those stores. And we are certainly not giving it away to anyone. So tell me, forgetting about what other countries decide to do with reprocessing technology, why shouldn't the US reprocess?
I agree that the article I cited wasn't the best one out there and was perhaps even a diversion from the real issues. How 'bout using the CRS Congressional Research Services: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RS22542.pdf and http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RL34234.pdf What emerges for me, is, as you pointed out, that plutonium is not a viable dirty bomb source--there are much easier ways to create those from much less secure sources that plutonium. But what also clearly emerges is that it has been through reprocessing technologies that rogue states have been able to establish nuclear weapons programs, using the covers of a peaceful nuclear power program as their national sovereign right. Specifically, the exported reprocessing technologies of Pakistan were the direct sources for both North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons initiatives. While the second article cited discusses the issue of trying to solve the problem of nuclear materials being diverted from nuclear power programs into nuclear weapons, it is not at all clear that countries on the verge are going to agree to the plans developed in GNEP. Some of the issues include skepticism by non-weapons countries of the weapons countries sincerity at actually eliminating weapons, which is a critical piece of the agreement. After reading through all of these articles, it seems that two seemingly contradictory things seem true: 1) the Carter ban on reprocessing probably was an essential move that slowed nuclear proliferation; 2) the effectiveness of the reprocessing ban is ultimately ineffective. In other words, it has given the world time to grapple with developing strategies to slow/stop nuclear proliferation, but during that time, nuclear proliferation has occurred in dangerous ways. While there do seem to be ways to separate nuclear power from nuclear weapons proliferation threats, this clearly isn't happening yet and may never happen. And the primary vector for this proliferation has been by using plutonium, despite your protestations that it's not that much of a threat. So unless there is widespread around the world of either denatured plutonium mixes and/or other nuclear power technologies that can separate the threat permanently, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place with no satisfactory solution in sight for how to handle nuclear waste.
You need to reread the article a little more carefully. It talks about terrorists wanting to make a dirty bomb but doesn't specify any material. It also states that terrorists want to get fissile material (which could be uranium OR plutonium, it doesn't state which) to make something beyond a dirty bomb (ie, nuclear bomb). Seriously, if a terrorist goes after plutonium, or even uranium, to make a dirty bomb... I can't even explain the stupidity of that. Can you tell me why a terrorist would try to get through ENORMOUS security to get plutonium when they can get Cobalt 60 from medical/dental and food processing facilities without even trying? The whole point of a dirty bomb isn't to kill, it's to scare and to play psychological games while causing a lot of money to be spent/lost in the cleanup. There was a pretty amazing study done at USC showing the damage that would be caused by a dirty bomb at a US port. If you are interested it's worth the time. As far as reprocessing, China, France, UK, India, Japan, and Russia all reprocess spent fuel. The article you chose doesn't do much service as there are inconsistencies. First it states that Frances outside customers dropped reprocessing because it did not make economic sense. This is a half truth. It didn't make economic sense to send it to FRANCE to be recycled. Japan actually opened their own reprocessing facilities. Economic factors were part of Germany's discontinuance, but that's partly because they chose not to reprocess in Germany, and partly due to the nuclear rebuttal that Germany went through and are now paying for with energy supply problems. Next, the article plays some games with numbers and makes it sound bad and is a little disingenuous. According to the Charpin report quoted by your article, reprocessing only raises the cost by about 1%. While it's still a lot of money, the French reasons for reprocessing are to limit waste, fully realizing it will cost a little more. The article makes it sound like the economics are bad so it isn't worth it, while the French say that even though it's more expensive it's worth it. Next, the leakage discussion in France. The amount of tritium they are leaking into the groundwater is about the same amount of radioactive material that we eat every year from bananas and other potassium containing foods. It sounds scary (and really should not be leaked regardless), but it's not as consequential as they want you to believe. I could continue to go subject by subject to talk about the weirdness of the article, but with all the nice little facts I found, not to mention who it is written by, I'm not impressed with that article. can we get a different article?
As you can see in the link below, Al Quaeda has already made this a priority, with the intent to include plutonium in IEDs to contaminate areas for years: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8296956/WikiLeaks-al-Qaeda-is-planning-a-dirty-bomb.html But as far as reprocessing, I suggest that you go back up to the link provided in #2 that points out that it is the French reprocessors AREVA that is trying to start up the reprocessing industry here in the US. All of the other countries outside of France that originally signed up with France to reprocess their spent fuel rods have backed out due to economic, environmental anad security reasons, leaving only the French nukes as their sole customer and they are desparate to find a major new supplier, namely the US. This despite all of the very real issues of extremely expensive process, no plans on what to do with the tons of extracted plutonium, and no what to do with the large amount of radioactive remnant material once the "useful" stuff has been extracted. Do you trust these guys to do the right thing?
Proliferation is kind of the boogeyman of reprocessing. So far no nuclear weapons have been developed from the fuel of a commercial power plant. In fact weapons have generally come before power and not vice versa. Of course that doesn?t make it impossible. When you look at the facts though I don?t see there being much to worry about. 1. Plutonium bombs are EXTREMELY difficult to make compared to a uranium bomb. The difference is between shooting uranium at more uranium versus creating a perfect sphere implosion that compresses ALL of the plutonium at exactly the same time and rate. Not 100% impossible but extremely unlikely for a terrorist cell to be able to do. So just looking at it from this standpoint a terrorist would much rather choose a uranium bomb. 2. There is already a lot (tons as you stated) of weapons grade plutonium in the rest of the world (mostly Russia). So much so that a terrorist would be stupid to try to take it from the US. And with all the protection measures in place it just isn?t feasible. 3. Research is coming a long way and is just about at the point where we can reprocess the spent fuel without making the plutonium vulnerable. Especially since the plutonium can be used as part of the fuel to run current LWR reactors (although it hasn?t caught on here as much as was hoped yet). There are other reason, but I think we are better off focusing on the cost/savings comparison as well as the cost/benefit analysis. Even if it cost more than storage would the reduction in the amount and overall volume and radioactivity of spent fuel justify it (I think it would)? Sure there are still waste streams that need to be taken care of but the end product may not be any more volume intensive than the toxic waste produced by the production and disposal of solar panels.
Why wouldn't you recycle it? Nobody wants the waste in their backyard, but yet they cry that it'll cost more money? I'll throw in my extra 10 bucks and anyone who doesn't want to can keep a container of it on their mantle.
The decision by the Carter administration was a boneheaded move from the beginning. The concern was that in the reprocessing that plutonium would be extracted where terrorists could possibly get hold of it. Thanks to N. Korea, Iran and the breakup of the former Soviet Union, our storing plutonium is pretty much a nonentity in concerns about terrorists getting their hands on the material. Spent fuel is being produced, that is predominantly reuseable if it is reprocessed, eliminating/reducing the need for mining additional uranium. France's reprocessing program has no bearing on what they may or may not have done with the overall technology. We're stupid not to reuse fuel that we have in hand.
The lawsuit by the State of New York, and two other states, is political grandstanding. Almost before the ink was dry on their filing, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California ruled against an anti- nuclear group that sued PG&E's Diablo Canyon reactor over the very same issue, e.g., long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel in dry casks. The 9th Circuit said the points raised by the plaintiff "were not persuasive" and dismissed their demand for an entirely new environmental impact statement on storage of spent fuel.
China also has an immense stockpile of thorium, a sludge lake of it actually, sitting on their frontier with Mongolia. This lake contains some 1.4 million acre-feet of centrifuged precipitated Thorium waste left over from solution-mining Rare-Earth Elements from buried Monazite deposits. Even if the lake is just 1% Thorium metal by volume that is a stupendous amount of the stuff to have lying around, possibly more than a hundred million tons. Just a thousand tons would suffice to fit out the breeding blanket of a Molten Salt Reactor. The good news is that North Carolina has Monazite too. Gee, if we could just get Carolingians to take on a few hundred dirty, low-paying jobs involving lakes of radioactive battery acid....
Thorium is everywhere. The US has a lot of it store from previous research projects. Thorium Molten Salt Reactors are a US invention that was abandoned in 1974 after about 20 years of experiments under the direction of Alvin Weinberg. The benefits of these rectors are just too many to ignore and guess what? China is now planning to build them. The biggest difference is that they don't need to be pressurized so they are inherently safer and can be built much smaller. Also they can't be used to make nuclear weapons. And economically they have a much better performance because the fuel is cheap and energy dense. The complete burn up of fuel (98%) is another feature. Current solid fuel reactors only burn 5% and 95% has to be buried or stored. Also waste fuel can be burned for more energy. Seems incredible because it is.
NO! Recycle is the last choice. The recycle symbol three arrows are for reduce, reduce and recycle. New nuclear plants should use the new safer neutron injection reactors being developed that use depleted uranium and use a cyclotron or other mechanism to add sufficient neutrons to the fuel to sustain the reaction. The advantages are significant. In addition to using what are currently considered spent rods as fuel, then are not capable of enriching the uranium and hence safe to supply power for even Iran or North Korea. In addition, turn off the neutron injection and the reactor is off and quickly goes cold. Reuse what is now considered waste. Think outside the box,
Good luck building any kind of nuclear processing plant anywhere. You should have heard the outcry when a company wanted to build a food processing plant here that would feature irradiation as a means of food preservation. Jobs? We don't care! What about all of the terrorists who are going to overrun the place? What about the massive contamination? What about our children?
The decision to halt Yucca Mtn waste repository development is just another example of all that is wrong with US nuclear policy. Yucca Mtn is within the old Nevada test range, in a place that is already contaminated with fallout from the 1950's A-bomb tests. Furthermore, almost no one lives within 50 miles of that place, and it has almost no water, which makes it ideal. In addition, the other early nuclear sites created during the Manhattan project under the press of wartime emergency did not have proper radiation controls in place, creating uncontrolled contamination at Hanford, Washington, Rocky Flats, Co, and other places. Of course, the US nuclear waste (mostly spent fuel rods) should be re-processed to recover fissile material and encapsulate non- fissile waste, and this should be done with redundant checks to ensure that nothing ever escapes containment. Politically, this will never be allowed because of the mess created during the early Atomic years, so the President will have to use National Security authority to over-rule the NIMBY opposition to make this happen for the greater good of the nation. This would necessarily need to occur during a 2'nd term, when the President wouldn't need to seek re-election.
The decision to halt Yucca Mtn waste repository development is just another example of all that is wrong with US nuclear policy. Yucca Mtn is within the old Nevada test range, in a place that is already contaminated with fallout from the 1950's A-bomb tests. Furthermore, almost no one lives within 50 miles of that place, and it has almost no water, which makes it ideal. In addition, the other early nuclear sites created during the Manhattan project under the press of wartime emergency did not have proper radiation controls in place, creating uncontrolled contamination at Hanford, Washington, Rocky Flats, Co, and other places. Of course, the US nuclear waste (mostly spent fuel rods) should be re-processed to recover fissile material and encapsulate non- fissile waste, and this should be done with redundant checks to ensure that nothing ever escapes containment. Politically, this will never be allowed because of the mess created during the early Atomic years, so the President will have to use National Security authority to make this happen for the greater good of the nation in spite of the domestic knee-jerk political NIMBY opposition. This would necessarily need to occur during a 2'nd term, when the President wouldn't need to seek re-election.
Another nuty idea where as PERFECT GOV greed subsided pork barel money wast fraud abuse. Wind up same or more costly. [ 2 REC CYC/OR NOT]
The Carter Administration was right on this one--remember, he was a nuclear engineer. Looking at France's record with reprocessing their spent fuel should be instructive enough--I've excerpted below what I found out when you posted the article about Frances' nuclear waste program: "Poking around to find out more about their reprocessing decisions and proliferation risks, I ran across this pretty scary report about France's role in proliferation of nukes around the world--seems that it helped Israel develop its reprocessing plant which has created its nuke stockpile, and even gave Saddam Hussein a reprocessing plant at Osirak, which Israel had to blow up to stop. France has not solved its radioactive waste problems with reprocessing--in fact it has made it worse. It's more expensive than standard waste storage, plus now they have a huge security risk by having accumulated 60 TONS of plutonium that could be made into nuclear weapons, and are still getting 8 tons/year more every year since 2005. For more details, check out: http://www.citizen.org/documents/Burnie%20paper%20on%20French%20reprocessing.pdf Bottom line: France is no model for the rest of the world!"
You are correct when you write "Whether U.S. policy embraces reprocessing, we?d still need a repository for some radioactive materials." However, the statement: "As far as a central, super long-term storage facility, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has crossed Yucca Mountain off the list of options." is a bit less correct as Chu and Obama do not have the authority to do this under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board judges have ruled on Chu's request to withdraw the Yucca Mountain License Application and affirmed that Chu can NOT do this. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit plans to hear oral arguments March 22 on whether the Obama administration can shut down Yucca Mountain. Given that the NRC judges with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board already ruled that DOE can?t withdraw the license the Circuit court has a significant precedent.