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Plutonium Reprocessing and Recycling Ivan Oelrich Federation of American Scientists 28 February 2008 202 -454 -4682 ioelrich@fas. org
Three Nuclear Fuel Cycles • Once through thermal reactors (current approach) • Recovery of plutonium for one additional pass through thermal reactors (French attempt) • Repeated reprocessing and burning of uranium, plutonium, and other transuranics in fast-neutron reactors (Argonne—and GNEP? —proposal)
Three Options for Nuclear Fuel Cycle
Why Reprocess and Recycle? • Original reasons (1940 s-1970 s): – Believed demand for nuclear power would be far greater than it turned out to be – Believed world uranium reserves were far smaller than they turned out to be • Current reasons: – Reduce amount of nuclear waste • “Given the uncertainties surrounding the Yucca Mountain license application process…” (House language) – Additional uranium energy secondary – Reduce proliferation risks – Support to nuclear industry
Problems? • The physics of the Argonne/GNEP proposal is correct. It all works well in theory. • The problems are in the economics, engineering, and timing.
Economics • Reprocessing is expensive, won’t make economic sense unless uranium is $400/kg (~4 times more expensive than it is today) or waste disposal is much more expensive or impossible. – No current forecasts foresee these uranium prices for decades into the future – Last summer saw a spike in price that has already passed – Extremely optimistic projections foresee 5 x increase in nuclear power over 50 years, requiring 6 million tons of uranium; OECD estimates 17 million tons available at $130/kg. • Recycling requires constructing a whole new fleet of fast neutron reactors. – “Burning only 1% of the log” is not a good analogy for current thermal reactors. Even “free” energy costs money to extract, whether hydro, or solar, or wind, or U 238. Fast reactors are expensive!
Last Summer’s Surge in Uranium Prices Was Temporary
Engineering • • Argonne proposals are not mature technology – UREX has been demonstrated at a lab-bench scale. – Electro-pyro reprocessing is in the laboratory demonstration phase, not commercialized. Pilot plant demos have failed. – Current French reprocessing does not reduce waste burden Past experience is not promising – Fast neutron reactors have been built, and abandoned in the past. – Costs of reprocessing are high and always higher than estimated. – Major environmental problems with existing reprocessing facilities. – What is new?
Reprocessing and Proliferation • DOE claims counter-proliferation as a particular virtue; new reprocessing technology is “proliferation resistant. ’ – Proposed approaches are less proliferation prone than PUREX, which was specifically designed to produce nuclear bombs. New reprocessing is not proliferation resistance compared to what we do today. • Even if new reprocessing systems work, nothing prevents further extraction of pure plutonium • For three decades US has argued against reprocessing by other countries. We lose moral authority.
Summary of Reprocessing Concerns • • Technology unproven GNEP continues to change Won’t save money Requires new reactors Won’t be ready in time to avoid Yucca Aggravates proliferation Decision can be deferred (by decades!)
Legislative Status • FY 2006 Energy & Water Appropriations bill provided: – $80 M for reprocessing R&D ($10 M more than administration request. ) – $50 M for design, site selection, and implementation of first reprocessing facility (not requested by Administration). • FY 2007 DOE’s request was $250 M. – House cut that by more than half to $120 M. Senate did not vote on a number. Went to continuing resolution for 2007 (and $167 M was spent). • FY 2008 $405 request, $179 M authorized • FY 2009 request totals $309 M.
What’s the Rush? • Urgency appears to be caused by a perceived window of opportunity: – fear of failure to open Yucca Mountain • But proposal will not solve that problem, won’t be ready in time. • Huge political resistance to Yucca, but there will be resistance to new fast reactors, too. – Climate change – End of current pro-nuclear administration • Level of technical development does not warrant site selection and demonstration plants • Large supplies of relatively cheap uranium available for decades
What to do? • If Yucca opens: use once through fuel cycle and store spent fuel in Yucca • If Yucca doesn’t open: improve security of decade-long spent fuel storage in pools (NAS says this is most vulnerable), followed by above ground storage. Dry cask storage, if done right, could hold waste for at least an additional century. • Continue research if promising, but not development and demonstration, on reprocessing and fast reactors. • THERE IS NO RUSH TO REPROCESS!
Main References: • For: – “Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste, ” Hannum, Marsh, Stanford, Scientific American – “Toward a Sustainable Nuclear Future: Closing the Fuel Cycle, ” Finck, Argonne Briefing • Against: – “The Economics of Reprocessing Versus Direct Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel, ” Bunn, Holdren, Fetter, van der Zwaan, Nuclear Technology – “Is U. S. Reprocessing Worth the Risk? ” Fetter, von Hippel, Arms Control Today