Category Archives: Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Surface storage of used nuclear fuel – safe, cost-effective, and flexible

by Rod Adams

In August 2014, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved NUREG-2157, Generic Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel. That action was the end result of several years worth of detailed analysis of the known and uncertain impacts of storing used nuclear fuel on the earth’s surface in licensed and monitored facilities.

As summarized in section 8 of the document, the staff determined that the environmental impact under expected conditions is small and acceptable even for an indefinite period of time. The analysis included consideration of a complete societal breakdown and loss of institutional control and determined that this situation would have an uncertain effect on the safety and security of used nuclear fuel, but determined that there is little likelihood that society will falter that much.

NUREG-2157 both eliminates the hold that was placed on issuing new or renewed nuclear facility licenses and it provides the technical basis supporting a decision to stop working on a geologic repository. If storing used material on the surface is acceptably safe, environmentally sound, and cost-effective for the foreseeable future, it would be a waste of resources to attempt to develop a facility using today’s technology. It is likely that technology will improve in the future. It is inevitable that the material of interest will become easier to handle as the shorter-lived, more active components decay at a rate established by physical laws.

NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane wrote the following perceptive statement in her comments about her vote on the rule:

In essence, the GEIS concludes that unavoidable adverse environmental impacts are “small” for the short-term, long-term, and indefinite time frames for storage of spent nuclear fuel. The proverbial “elephant in the room” is this: if the environmental impacts of storing waste indefinitely on the surface are essentially small, then is it necessary to have a deep geologic disposal option?

Almost exactly right! We should ask hard questions of those who maintain that “deep geologic disposal is necessary” because “a majority of the public industry, academia, and regulators” say it is. Here are some questions worth asking:

  • Why do you think a mined deep geologic repository is required?
  • What makes it so important?
  • Where is the recorded vote on which you base your claim that it is the majority opinion?
  • If there was a vote, when was that vote taken?
  • Have there been any changes in circumstances that challenge the validity of that determination?
  • Should options besides a mined deep geologic repository be reconsidered?
  • How much will it cost each year to simply defer action into the indeterminate future?
  • From an accounting perspective, aren’t costs that are deferred far into the future worth less, not more, if they are recalculated into today’s dollars?

Those who have read Macfarlane’s full comment should recognize that she is not only the source of the “elephant in the room” statement above, but she is also the source of the assertions that the United States must continue pursuing a mined geologic repository because we have a “long-established responsibility to site a repository for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel,” and she wants to make sure that the NRC’s determination that continued surface storage represents a small environmental impact for the indefinite future does not enable “avoiding this necessary task.”

Last week, I had the opportunity to ask Chairman Macfarlane if she thought that the NRC had a role in deciding U.S. policy on long-term nuclear waste storage. She explained that the only role for the NRC would be to review the license application submitted for any specific facility. The responsibility for planning and developing that facility and obtaining the funds necessary would be under the purview of a different agency.

I asked what the NRC’s role should be if no organization submits an application for a facility. She admitted that its only role in that case would be to continue monitoring existing facilities and approving license renewals or new licenses.

Congress can, and should, make a determination that the plan for nuclear waste for the indefinite future is to continue safely storing used material. It should remove the responsibility for permanent disposal of nuclear waste from the Department of Energy and put it into industry’s hands to solve. Of course, the industry will remain under the watchful eye of the already established federal regulator using procedures and processes that are already in place and continually being refined. It should make use of existing products and services, continue improving those offerings and should consider the need for facility consolidation as that makes economic sense.

Macfarlane and I also agree about when we would begin to believe that the United States can site, license, build, and operate a mined deep geologic repository, as she said:

I will have confidence in the timing when a renewed national consensus emerges on a repository for spent nuclear fuel.

(Emphasis added.)

There is no reason to suspect that a sufficiently bulletproof consensus will ever exist. Recent history has proven that it takes just a handful of people elected or appointed into the right positions to derail even the best laid plans made with strong support throughout the rest of the country.

Though Macfarlane seems concerned about the potential impact if there is a “loss of institutional control,” the controls required to ensure continued safety and environmental protection from used nuclear fuel are simple and easily implemented. As long as we do not believe that future generations will forget how to read, we can be sure enough that they will remember how to keep used nuclear fuel safely isolated.

Many people in Chairman Macfarlane’s generation—which is also my generation—probably believe at least some of the many entertainment products depicting that there is going to be an inevitable dystopia in the future. Those fictional predictions of the future might have made for good reading or viewing, but they are as useful a decision tool as any other wild fiction. Even if their fanciful dystopia becomes reality, used nuclear fuel will be low on the prioritized lists of risks.

Macfarlane has expressed some concerns about the financial responsibility associated with continued storage of used nuclear fuel. Establishing bonds or other forms of continued financial surety is a common business practice. Radioactive materials are not uniquely hazardous or even uniquely long-lived compared to other elements and compounds in common industrial service. We have learned to live with them. We have proven that we know how to protect the public from any harm. There is no reason to expect that society will forget the lessons it has already learned.

A simple financial solution would be to have nuclear plant owners establish a used fuel fund that would be as isolated from their normal finances as their decommissioning funds. The experience that we have with the current Nuclear Waste Fund shows that a tiny fee on each unit of nuclear electricity will grow into a very sizable fund if undisturbed over time. We should stop stealing the capital accumulated by such a fee to pay for other continuing government expenses and we should not fritter it away by conducting geologic studies of the depths under any region that has the proven potential to produce politically powerful majority leaders. (Nearly every state in the union has that potential given the longevity of any proposed repository program.)

In the conclusion of her seven page comment, Macfarlane included the following statement:

Finally, I note that at least one commenter has suggested that development of a repository in the U.S. has developed into a Sisyphean task. I agree that much in the national management of spent fuel and development of a geologic repository over the past decades fits this analogy.

Once again, I agree with Macfarlane’s description of the current situation associated with attempting to site a single geologic repository in the United States.

Americans must remember that we are not subjects of Greek gods condemned to continue the frustratingly impossible task of pushing a rock uphill every day just to have it roll back down at the end of the day. We are free members of a society that has the ability to make choices and to change its mind to adapt to new situations or when new information is revealed. The cancellation of Yucca Mountain through actions of a tiny group of people shows that successfully siting a repository in the United States, with its multiple interest groups and arcane procedural rules, is not possible.

The good news is that we don’t need a repository in order to operate nuclear power plants safely and to store the created residues in a way that produces negligible environmental impacts. We don’t need a government program that can be milked for assets and jobs for decades before being derailed. We don’t need to have the federal government—which means us, as taxpayers—pay the costs of continued storage; the costs are predictable and can be paid with a small fee on each unit of power generation.

Making the choice to quit now and spend our limited resources on something more useful must not be judged as unfair to future generations. Used nuclear fuel has potential value, and we can create savings accounts now that can enable a different long-term solution in the distant future when there is more general agreement that constipating nuclear energy would be a suicidal course of action for society.

As technology improves, assets build up in the coffers of responsible parties, nuclear power plant sites continue to be developed, nuclear power plant sites occasionally become repurposed, and the demand for nuclear fuel changes, future societies can change their mind. Nothing in the above plan precludes any choices for the future; the key action needed today is to stop digging the hole that currently seems to provide no possibility for escape.

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

New ANS Awards in Fuel Cycle and Waste Management

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By Katy Huff

In an enthusiastic push to better recognize the outstanding technical work of our colleagues and the extraordinary community contributions of American Nuclear Society members, the Fuel Cycle and Waste Management Division (FCWMD) has established four brand new awards this year. As the nomination deadline of April 1 swiftly approaches, we hope that you’ll help us celebrate excellence in nuclear engineering by nominating extraordinary candidates for this first round of awards.

These awards include two national awards and two divisional awards to publicly recognize the exceptional contributions of our members. They primarily address two key values of the Fuel Cycle and Waste Management Division: technical accomplishment and divisional service.

Seeking to emphasize contributions to the FCWMD, we have instituted new awards for Significant Contribution to the FCWM Mission and Distinguished Service on Behalf of the FCWM Division. In order to honor contributions to the science and engineering technology behind nuclear fuel cycles and waste management, the Outstanding Published Work and Lifetime Achievement awards were also instituted.

For more details and nomination forms, please see FCWMD Awards and ANS Honors and Awards. We hope that you’ll nominate exceptional colleagues before April 1.

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katyhuff 100x136Katy Huff is a Nuclear Science Security Consortium postdoctoral scholar at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley, where she conducts computational analyses of advanced nuclear technologies and systems.  She holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where her research emphasized computational fuel cycle systems analysis and repository technology simulation.

Nuclear Video Matinee: Uranium Mining and Milling

It’s hot out! Across much of the United States, the largest heat wave of the summer has been stagnating all week.

This would be a good time to head to a cool, underground… uranium mine?

Well, yes, this is where the nuclear energy fuel cycle starts. When you turn on the air conditioner—this is the beginning of it all.

But let the McArthur River miners and Key Lake millers, up in cool, breezy northern Saskatchewan, speak for themselves, in this excerpt from Powering America. Wait—one loader bucket of this stuff is worth… $1.9 million?

There are misperceptions about uranium mining, mostly stemming from the ideas that uranium ore is highly radioactive and is exceptionally dangerous—actually, neither turns out to really be the case. Well, remote control machinery helps too. See this straightforward Q&A on the video and uranium mining.

Key Lake in Saskatchewan, Canada, is the world’s largest high-grade uranium mill. Check the Cameco Key Lake webpage to learn more. Actually… why not sit back and take a virtual tour of the Key Lake uranium mill?

Thanks to Heritage Foundation and Cameco for producing these fine videos. Watch the Powering America film on the nuclear energy industry, told in the words of the people who make it go, in its entirety

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The State of the Union address–and nuclear energy

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By Katy Huff
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In his State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress in 2011, President Obama lauded nuclear power as an essential part of the non-carbon mix that he would champion while revamping our inefficient, high-carbon energy sector:

“Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all…”

In 2012’s address, the president mentioned “renewable energy” and “jobs”, but didn’t explicitly mention or neglect nuclear power. This year, however, he listed a number of energy sources on which the energy future of the United States would rely. Wind, solar, natural gas, and oil all made the list again this year, but nuclear power was absent. In the same breath that the president touted natural gas, he even pointed out “…our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.”

This trend in the administration’s pronouncements, on the heels of a resignation announcement by Dr. Steven Chu, our nation’s first Nobel Prize-winning energy secretary, may seem disturbing signals for young nuclear professionals in the United States who have hinged their careers on a nuclear future. Meanwhile, the waste confidence conundrum continues to passively block new licenses and extensions, and a Department of Energy response to the Blue Ribbon Commission puts advanced reprocessing on the R&D back-burner indefinitely.

From the perspective of young nuclear professionals such as myself, this research and industry development outlook is not the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative/Global Nuclear Energy Partnership “renaissance” that was so promising when we entered university. Though members of the community in an older generation may have already weathered the political ups and downs of this industry first-hand, younger members may struggle to trust that the United States is not turning its back on new nuclear power and R&D.

A more encouraging development might be the potential candidacy of Ernie Moniz for energy secretary. For that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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ANS Nuclear Cafe welcomes new contributor Katy Huff. She is a PhD candidate in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a laboratory graduate appointee at Argonne National Laboratory working on computational fuel cycle analysis. She currently develops Cyder, a nuclear waste disposal system model, and the Cyclus next generation fuel cycle simulator.

ANS Chicago Local Section welcomes Dr. Mark Peters

What’s Next For Used Nuclear Fuel and Nuclear Waste Management Policy?

On the evening of January 16, the Chicago local section of the American Nuclear Society welcomed distinguished guest speaker Mark Peters, Ph.D., deputy director for programs at Argonne National Laboratory. A dinner meeting was held at the ANS headquarters building. Peters addressed the section on the future of US policy concerning used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste management, a topic area for which he is a nationally recognized expert (short bio).

Mark T. Peters, Ph.D.

The topic could not have been more timely, as the US Department of Energy on Friday, January 9, released a response to the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future recommendations on nuclear spent fuel and nuclear waste policy, broadly endorsing the commission’s findings and in effect outlining a new strategy for US nuclear waste disposal.

Chicago Local Section Chair Totju Totev, Ph.D.

Over 40 were in attendance to hear Peters provide a background on US spent fuel and waste storage policy history, and a detailed update on current status—including Yucca Mountain and other ongoing nuclear waste legal challenges. Often Peters paused the presentation to enable spirited Q&A discussions on many aspects of the topic. (As an aside, many in attendance advocated a “closed nuclear fuel cycle“—while this is not current policy in the United States, Peters noted that continued R&D is important to develop the viability of this option for the future.)

Getting ready for presentation

“It was a pleasure to address the ANS Chicago Local section on this vitally important topic,” Peters said after the event. “Many members in the section are involved in advancing research and development in the nuclear fuel cycle, and I was pleased to discuss the history of and ongoing discussions on US policy concerning spent fuel and nuclear waste management.”

Peters’ presentation slides linked here.

Chicago Local Section Secretary Justin W. Thomas, Ph.D.

Periodic dinner meetings such as this one are hosted by many ANS local sections on a regular basis. See map of ANS local  sections for contact information in your geographic area.

Dr. Totev and Dr. Peters

Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future website here.

Peters’ Testimony to U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of ANS concerning recycling used nuclear fuel.

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Nuclear Matinee: Powering America – Managing Nuclear Waste

The nuclear energy industry is the only large-scale energy producer responsible for managing and storing (and paying for) all the wastes generated by the process [in contrast to, for example… dumping wastes into the atmosphere].

This short video takes viewers inside the system for handling spent nuclear fuel, and explores the option of recycling and reprocessing to aid in resolving the long term storage issue.

Thanks to The Heritage Foundation for the video. We also highly recommend the full documentary on America’s nuclear power industry at http://heritage.org/poweringamericafilm/.

Nuclear Cafe Matinee: Nuclear Recycling in 4 Minutes

The 800 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity produced by the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States each year — all while emitting no greenhouse gases — is by far America’s biggest source of green energy.  And this abundant energy source can become even greener by recycling used nuclear fuel.

Currently, only about five percent of the uranium in a nuclear fuel rod gets fissioned for energy; after that, the rods are taken out of the reactor and put into storage. There is a way, however, to use almost all of the uranium in a fuel rod. Recycling the uranium in used nuclear fuel could power the United States for a thousand years, just by using the uranium we’ve already mined, and all of this energy carbon-free.

This excellent short video from Argonne National Laboratory explains how.

And now… you too can regale your friends and others at holiday parties with pontifications about pyroprocessing!

Thanks to Argonne National Laboratory, and for more information visit Argonne Nuclear Energy.

ANS International High-Level Radioactive Waste Management Topical Meeting

Integrating Storage, Transportation, and Disposal

The 2013 ANS Topical Meeting on International High-Level Radioactive Waste Management will be held April 28–May 2, 2013, at the Albuquerque Marriott in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The meeting is a forum for discussion of the scientific, technical, social, and regulatory aspects of the entire “back end” of the nuclear fuel cycle, including waste generation, transportation, storage, treatment, disposal, facility remediation, regulation, and stakeholder involvement.

The conference is an opportunity for an exchange of information on current topics of interest among international participants in nuclear waste activities.

Intended participants and audiences include individuals working on all aspects of irradiated fuel and high-level waste management such as geologic waste-disposal systems, interim storage systems, spent nuclear fuel reprocessing systems, transportation systems, facility remediation systems, the governmental and private organizations using these systems, regulators, and those involved in scientific and societal issues related to policy questions for these systems.

Register Now

Hotel Reservations (attendees should identify themselves as part of the American Nuclear Society to receive the group rate)

See the International High-Level Radioactive Waste Management meeting page for preliminary program and more details. We hope to see you in Albuquerque.

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Uranium 233 is a valuable resource, no matter what Robert Alvarez believes

by Rod Adams

Robert Alvarez has issued another misleading report about energy dense fuel materials, titled Managing the Uranium-233 Stockpile of the United States.

According to Alvarez’s report, the United States owns about 3400 pounds of U-233, which is one of two fissile isotopes of uranium. He portrays this resource, which has been in storage since the 1970s, as a hazardous stockpile that somehow puts the world at risk of a rogue group obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. Unfortunately, he is not the only person with this mistaken opinion. The Department of Energy is currently planning to spend nearly half a billion dollars to get rid of the United States’ carefully protected U-233 resources.

Alvarez’s report does not mention the fact that the stockpile contains as much potential energy as 23 million barrels of oil. At current world oil prices, that gives it a comparable energy value of more than $2 billion, even if it is not used for its highest and best purpose, as the seed for an expansive program of thermal spectrum breeder reactors.

Waste not, want not

My Depression Era parents deeply embedded the “waste not, want not” mantra into my brain. As a relatively prosperous adult, I must admit that I do not always spend as much time separating and consolidating materials for recycling as my parents did, but I still respect their teachings that one should not discard items or materials that have future uses. Short-sighted acts of disposal often destroy any potential value because of the difficulty associated with removing contaminants.

I’ve been writing and reading for nearly two decades about the impressive capabilities offered by using a nuclear fission fuel cycle that includes uranium 233 and thorium 232. As anyone who has read Kirk Sorensen’s excellent blog Energy from Thorium or listened to his passionate talks on molten salt reactors knows, U-233 produces about 15 percent more neutrons per thermal fission as U-235 or Pu-239. That difference is significant; it means that a U-233/Th-232 fuel cycle can achieve a conversion ratio greater than 1.0 in a thermal spectrum reactor, resulting in a self-sustaining fuel cycle that might never need any additional fissile material.

Light water breeder reactor

Sometime during the early 1990s, after I had been a nuclear-trained submarine engineering officer for about a dozen years, I learned about the demonstration reactor core that was installed into the Shippingport nuclear power plant. That final core was operated 1977–1982 as a Light Water Breeder Reactor.

That demonstration proved that a well-designed thermal spectrum reactor could use the extra neutrons produced by U-233 to turn thorium into a useful fuel material at a rate faster than the U-233 would be consumed. Unfortunately, one inherent disadvantage of nuclear fuel cycle knowledge development is that it takes a long time. After five years of power production, the light water breeder reactor core was still going strong, with no evidence of the loss of reactivity that accompanies conventional reactor materials as they consume the fissile materials in their low-enriched uranium fuel rods.

Because the project sponsors knew that they might not be able to continue funding the team that would perform the post-operation fuel material analysis, they stopped the experiment. There were no immediately scheduled follow-on cores because any potential customers would have wanted to wait until the final results were known. No large-scale production capacity was ever developed to handle the unique blend of materials involved in the LWBR process.

Analysis

The destructive fuel rod analysis that proved that breeding had occurred was not completed until five years after the experiment had been terminated, which was more than 10 years after the fuel fabrication had been completed. Here is a quote from section IX, Summary and Discussion of Significance from a report titled “Proof of Breeding in the Light Water Breeder Reactor (WAPD-TM-1612),” which was provided to the DOE in September 1987 under contract No. DE-AC11-76PN00014. (I have provided that detail just in case someone thinks it might be worthwhile to file a Freedom of Information Act request.)

The results demonstrate conclusively that LWBR was a breeder. They show that breeding can be achieved in a light-water reactor using 233U as fissile fuel and the naturally occurring, relatively abundant 232Th as fertile material. Thus, the Light Water Breeder Program which the Department of Energy pursued for more than twenty years has demonstrated and proven unequivocally that 233U-232Th breeders can be built, operated in light water reactor plants to produce electrical energy, and breed more fissile fuel than they consume. This means that the plentiful domestic supply of low and moderate cost thorium represents a potential resource for providing about fifty times the amount of energy which could be produced using current light water reactors and the domestic supply of low and moderate cost uranium. This light water breeder system could supply the entire electrical energy need of the United States for centuries.

The primary significance of proving breeding in LWBR is the demonstrated potential for greatly increasing our nation’s electrical energy generation capability for many years to come.

By the time those words were written at the end of the quietly submitted report, the leading proponents of the technology had either died (Rickover) or lost all of their influence on government programs (Radkowsky). Radkowsky, the creative designer of the fuel system, eventually started a company called Thorium Power (which is now operating under the name of Lightbridge) to attempt to commercialize his ideas.

A few years before Rickover and Radkowsky demonstrated the possibilities of using a U-233/Th-232 fuel cycle in conventional reactors, there were a couple of experiments conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that avoided the fuel fabrication and destructive testing issues described above. By dissolving the U-233 and Th-232 into molten salts, those experiments showed that it was possible to design liquid-fueled reactors that might be arranged to enable utilization of the world’s large thorium fuel resource. There is much to be learned about building durable molten salt reactors with closed fuel systems, but the learning process would be made less time consuming if the Department of Energy enabled effective use of the already existing inventory of special material.

Even if one agrees with Alvarez’s stated concern about the need to carefully protect the U-233 from all possibility of being stolen, I cannot imagine any system that is less likely to experience material theft than operating nuclear power reactors. Those devices are surrounded by thick shielding resembling a vault, and they are full of self-protective radioactive isotopes. Sarah Weiner, writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, characterized Alvarez’s well publicized report as “alarmism”, but she also supported the DOE’s plans to make it nearly impossible for the energy laden material to be put to any beneficial use.

Knowing what I know about U-233’s potential benefits, I was saddened by Matt Wald’s recent article titled Uranium Substitute Is No Longer Needed, but Its Disposal May Pose Security Risk. It is disturbing to think that so many people have such a huge misunderstanding of nuclear fission technology that they take action to make U-233 an expensive waste product, instead of more accurately treating it as a potent energy resource that would become more valuable the more it is used.

PS—I cannot resist the temptation to compare the DOE’s planned expenditure of $473 million to destroy the potential value in its U-233 stockpile with the $452 million that has been widely promoted as the government’s contribution to small modular reactor development.

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Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

U.S. Global Nuclear Leadership Through Export-Driven Engagement

By Art Wharton

The latest American Nuclear Society board-approved Position Statement (PS83) is titled “U.S. Global Nuclear Leadership Through Export-Driven Engagement.” This statement highlights a paradigm shift that is occurring within ANS, as global macroeconomic issues force the recognition that clean energy is imperative for continued global development.

It’s logical that ANS would want U.S. nuclear technology to dominate the global market; but the position statement does not come from a market-driven angle—it is noted as a non-proliferation measure. This may seem paradoxical at first, but I ask the audience: Would you rather the U.S. nuclear energy industry influence the world’s developing countries as they inevitably build their nuclear infrastructure? Or would you prefer the influence of the nuclear energy industry of another country, which might not enforce and teach the same level of rigor in operational excellence, human performance, and design for non-proliferation?

ANS is now taking the stance that nuclear energy is not only a valuable source of domestic stability, but also an international security imperative. As developing countries begin taking advantage of nuclear energy as a clean energy source (this is already well underway and accelerating), the United States will be looked toward for its technology leadership in nuclear energy.

1-2-3 Agreements

For bilateral nuclear trade agreements (known as 1-2-3 Agreements), it is imperative that the 1-2-3s be negotiated in a way that assures safety, but does not necessarily demand that a sovereign nation give up its sovereignty (such as automatically requiring that a country never “enrich” uranium to the very low levels required for use as nuclear fuel). The origination of the ANS position statement was a U.S. House of Representatives bill proposed to essentially enact a “gold standard” in 1-2-3 agreements, after the United Arab Emirates had agreed to forego its right to enrich uranium as an anti-proliferation measure. Since we know that these types of requirements are not being placed on agreements among other countries, such a requirement would place the United States in an uncompetitive stance, left to watch from the sidelines as the international nuclear trade landscape develops. Logically, ANS would like to see American technology leading the way to a cleaner and safer energized world.

The exportation of peaceful nuclear technology is highly valuable to developing nations. Historically, countries that developed nuclear energy technology actually developed nuclear weapons first, before they realized how much more valuable nuclear technology is for peaceful purposes. Why not help developing countries skip that first step?

U.S. nuclear technology is designed with anti-proliferation in mind as part of global security policy, so the exportation of U.S. nuclear energy technology as a market leader serves as a security imperative, to ensure that peaceful and nonproliferative technology is used dominantly throughout the world. I ask again: Would you rather see a developing country install U.S. technology under the guidance and influence of the United States? Or, would you rather see a developing country buy from someone else?

Influence and control

This is actually an area where Position Statement 83 may bring a little discomfort to the people in the nonproliferation community. It contains an undertone of influence, rather than control, over the expansion of nuclear science and technology in the international community. When I was a very young boy, my parents were able to control me; indeed, it was their responsibility to control me as I was raised. But something weird happened as I grew up into my teen years: I gained a sense of sovereignty. I could think for myself, act for myself, and I was pretty sure I knew more than them anyway, as most teenagers do. I wasn’t completely grown up yet, but the game had changed. My parents could no longer expect the ability to control me, but needed to still influence me to grow into a productive member of society (Craig Piercy, the Washington, D.C. representative for ANS, tells of this paradigm shift with pictures of his children as they grew up—it’s personally compelling and relatable).

In a global society where the United States out-spends everyone else on national defense (and shall we say, international defense), there yet comes a time when even the immense capability of the U.S. Armed Forces cannot effectively control the global community—but the positive example of the U.S. nuclear energy industry, its exemplary safety record, and its operational excellence can serve as a beacon of influence as it exports its technology.

This is why the United States must be the market leader in the exportation of peaceful nuclear technology. But I’m not done.

Poverty and risk

One of the (some might say, naïve) dreams that I had roughly a decade ago as I was working on my undergraduate degree was the dream that I could forge a career selling and building nuclear power plants in developing nations—as part of a larger global effort to bring people out of poverty. “U.S. Global Nuclear Leadership Through Export-Driven Engagement” could help that dream come alive.

World Bank research indicates that besides the opening of new markets and increasing global wealth creation, security is the other imperative to reduce world poverty, and vice-versa. A “rich” person has a lot more to lose if they go to war or otherwise commit acts of violence. What has a poor person to lose by taking such large risks? In a world where only about 1/6th of the population lives on more than $5 of purchasing power per day, the opportunities are endless for improving global security hand-in-hand with global economic activity. Peaceful nuclear science and technology applications can be a significant piece of the puzzle—with the United States leading the way through a high level of engagement in exports.

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Disclosure: I have a deep personal interest in the topic of exporting nuclear technology, which influenced my choice of employment at the finest nuclear technology company on the planet; however, all opinions contained above are my own opinions, and do not necessarily represent the opinions, positions, or strategies of Westinghouse Electric Company LLC or any of its subsidiaries or parent companies, or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

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Wharton

Art Wharton is a principal project engineer at Westinghouse Electric Company LLC in Nuclear Power Plants Business & Project Development. He is a member of the ANS Planning Committee, ANS Public Policy Committee, the ANS Operations and Power Division Program Committee, is the Treasurer of the ANS Operations and Power Division, is the Pittsburgh ANS Local Section Past Chair, a Trustee on the Board of Pittsburgh’s Urban Pathways Charter School, and is a guest contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

The future of nuclear at #MOXChat

By Laura Scheele

On September 11, the National Nuclear Security Administration (U.S. Department of Energy) hosted a public meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn., concerning its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the disposition of surplus weapons-grade plutonium as mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for use in power reactors. You may have seen the ANS Call to Action for the hearing and perhaps read the ANS position statement or background information.

L to R: Stephanie Long, Nick Luciano, Alyx Wszolek, and Suzy Hobbs Baker.

This is the story about how ANS members fulfilled the mission set forth in the position statement:  to inform the public and media about the nonproliferation benefits of the MOX fuel program. It’s also the story of how ANS student members answered the Call to Action and contributed to the success of this event for the Society.

The Chattanooga ANS Local Section and the Chattanooga State Community College ANS Student Section both committed to supporting the September 11 hearing as a priority outreach project. ANS Public Information Committee Chair Dave Pointer e-mailed nearly 700 ANS national and student members within a 5-state radius and asked them to come to the hearing to represent the Society, to explain why MOX fuel use makes sense, and to make a stand for nuclear in an area where nuclear opponents had monopolized the public discussion about nuclear.

ANS members showed up.

ANS student members from University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UT-K): (l to r) Hailey Green, Remy Devoe, Tyler Rowe, Seth Langford, John Wilson, and Brent Fiddler. (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

LOTS of ANS members showed up.

Chattanooga State Community College ANS students wear their blue-and-orange shirts in a standing-room-only public hearing.

MOST of the ANS members who showed up were students.

The faculty and student delegation from University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UT-K). (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

ANS members who couldn’t show up replied to the e-mail to say they couldn’t come, but wanted to pass along their encouragement and their belief that this was the right thing to do.

We can take pride in how well the Society was represented in Chattanooga.

The students took pride in representing the Society and the profession—and did so very well.

Chattanooga was a communications victory for ANS across the board: a great turnout for nuclear professionals and students and a great event for explaining the benefits of MOX fuel technologies.

Defying expectations

The presence of so many young people supporting the ANS position on MOX fuel made a definite impression upon attendees. The most common question I was asked by non-ANS participants was, “How many Chattanooga State students are here today?” One gentleman who opposed MOX fuel prefaced his remarks by saying that he once taught at Chattanooga State and was thrilled to see so many students attending the hearing.

Chattanooga ANS Local Section Chair Samuel Snyder wrote following the hearing:

Samuel Snyder, Chattanooga ANS Local Section Chair

Samuel Snyder comments during the hearing.

One thing that struck me last night was the average age of those who attended the meeting in support of the nuclear science and technology industry. When you take last night’s “pro-nuclear” group as a whole, I would say that the average age was in the 20s.

A good number of students were willing to get up in front of the group and provide public comments in favor of the ANS-backed proposal for the disposition of surplus plutonium. The comments were very civil from the “pro” side, and mainly civil from the “anti” side, though my biased opinion is that the “pro” side did a much better job of presenting facts and providing sound arguments for their position.

It’s good to have friends…

This was the first public hearing experience for most of the participants. Recently, Chattanooga has seen a lot of anti-nuclear activity, including opponents who stage protests dressed as zombies.

In asking ANS members to attend this hearing, we were asking nuclear professionals to venture outside of their comfort zone in terms of making public comments on an issue that might not really be their area of expertise—and oh, by the way, you might also need to wade through a crowd of zombies who will be heckling you. No worries!

Three ANS students wisely team up and keep their backs to the wall to prevent a zombie sneak attack. (L to R: Alyx Wszolek, Steven Stribling, and Stephanie Long ) (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

That’s what friends (and professional membership societies) are for—to watch your back when you’re surrounded by zombies. Being the only science-informed person in the room can sometimes be uncomfortable and even intimidating. There is strength in numbers, and so coming together on a vitally important issue strengthens our association by strengthening our professional and personal bonds.

…Especially social media friends

Suzy Hobbs Baker of the Nuclear Literacy Project drove from South Carolina to support the hearing. (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

The social media promotion of this event contributed to its success. The ANS Social Media Group is an amazing collection of people with wildly different perspectives and backgrounds who share one thing: the conviction that the nuclear community needs to improve how we communicate if nuclear energy’s promise is to be realized.

 

Alex Woods, Chattanooga State

Alex Woods, Chattanooga State Student Section president, led off the comments.

Individually and collectively, they have shed much blood, sweat, and tears in their efforts—and they are willing to lend a hand so that your blood, sweat, and tears might be spared.

#MOXChat was the twitter hashtag for the Chattanooga hearing. The live-tweeting provided a minute-by-minute rundown of the comments and observations by nuclear professionals across the country who followed this on twitter. Unfortunately, the tweets have expired on Twitter.

A roundup of social media coverage of #MOXChat is at the end of this article. Many thanks to everyone who supported this event via social media. Your observations and advice were invaluable, and many of the students brought printouts of your entries to the hearing as prep material.

Steven Skutnik

Steven Skutnik

A special tip of the ANS Nuclear Cafe cap to Steve Skutnik, who did it all at this hearing: made public comments, live-tweeted the hearing, live-blogged the hearing here at the ANS Nuclear Cafe, blogged pre- and post-hearing at his Neutron Economy blog, and helped prep students in his capacity as UT-K assistant professor. Thanks, Steve!

 

The power of  showing up

Howard Shaffer, Meredith Angwin and Eric Loewen

Howard Shaffer and Meredith Angwin receive presidential citations from ANS Past President Eric Loewen.

Meredith Angwin and Howard Shaffer have spearheaded a nuclear advocacy effort in Vermont that has changed the public debate over nuclear energy. They often talk about the value of  ‘Showing Up’ to support nuclear. By showing up, Meredith and Howard have built a pro-nuclear grassroots movement in a place where people sometimes seem to think nuclear is a four-letter word.

Pro-Nuclear Rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Go Team Nuclear!

We asked ANS members to come to the hearing and comment on behalf of ANS—but we also asked those who could not comment to show up and support their friends and colleagues. They did—and they applauded every comment. Some who couldn’t stay for the hearing showed up to meet with the students and answer questions that they had about MOX fuel and reactor operations.

ANS members mingle before the public hearing begins.

Everyone there contributed to the success of this event—just by showing up.

Having fun is contagious

The disposition of excess weapons-grade plutonium is a serious issue. The ANS student members took seriously the responsibility of speaking on behalf of the ANS position and the need to counter some of the more implausible assertions by the nuclear opponents who attended.

Chris Perfetti preparing his public comments.

Taking the responsibility seriously, however, doesn’t mean being humorless. Sometimes we err too much on the side of serious and need to remember that positive experiences build upon themselves: having fun at an event makes it more likely that you’ll do something similar in the future.

Besides, we’re hilarious! Why try to fight it?

Sometimes a little #MOXSnark needs to be vented due to the wild claims made by nuclear opponents.

And sometimes brilliant ideas—like ANS Man, or a YouTube show featuring Sarcastic Science Guy in a Turquoise Shirt, or setting future public comments to cheering cadences—are born of these shared experiences.

All I will say is this:  My understanding of  plutonium dispersion factors has been forever transformed. Or, as Steve Skutnik live-tweeted, #youprobablyhadtobethere.

You know, in Chattanooga.

WHERE ANS ACHIEVED TOTAL DOMINATION*!

*in a technically credible, knowledgable, and thoroughly polite and eloquent manner, while adhering to the highest standards of safety (no zombies were harmed in the writing of this post).

L to R: Remy Devoe, John Wilson, Rob Milburn, and UT-K Student Section President Ryan Sweet

Social media roundup

Rod Adams, Atomic Insights:
Plutonium Power for the People

Meredith Angwin, Yes Vermont Yankee:
MOX & Hearings in Chattanooga
Meeting Success Story in Chattanooga
Show Up for Nuclear in Chattanooga

Steve Skutnik, Neutron Economy:
Wading into the Zombie Nuclear Horde
Mixing it up over MOX – a wrapup from Chattanooga

Dan Yurman, Idaho Samizdat:
Mix it Up about MOX in Chattanooga
Calling Out Red Herrings about MOX Fuel for TVA

US Areva:
Can you Talk MOX? 10 Things You Need to Know about MOX Nuclear Fuel

Chattanooga State students stand near a MOX fuel assembly mock-up at the open house. (L to R: Geneva Parker, Mark Hunter, and Brian Satterfield) (Photo by Charles Ellsworth)

Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information

ANS was able to support this important effort thanks to funding provided through its Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information.

___________________________________

 Laura Scheele is the Communications and Public Policy Manager for the American Nuclear Society’s Communications and Outreach Department.

Revisiting Reprocessing in South Korea

The U.S. doesn’t want to hear about it

By Dan Yurman

The Cold War is over and North Korea has another nut job for a political leader, this time it is an untested youth still shy of his 30th birthday. Claims by the United States that South Korea must not pursue uranium enrichment and reprocessing because of the unpredictability of its northern neighbor are getting little traction in Seoul these days. The reason is that South Korea is a major user and exporter of civilian nuclear energy. It wants energy security and to recover the energy value in a growing inventory of spent fuel from its reactors.

According to World Nuclear News, South Korea is now a major nuclear energy country. It won a $20-billion contract to supply four nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates. Within the past two months, the UAE nuclear safety agency approved a license for the first unit and construction is underway at a remote site on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Three more South Korean reactors will be built there by 2020.

Today, 23 reactors provide one-third of South Korea’s electricity from 20.7 GWe of plant. The government says it intends to provide 59 percent of electricity from 40 units by 2030.

Nuclear energy remains a strategic priority for South Korea, and capacity is planned to increase by 56 percent to 27.3 GWe by 2020, and then to 43 GWe by 2030.

Revising a 40 year old treaty

Comes now the request by the South Korean government, first aired in October 2010, to revise the bilateral cooperation treaty with the U.S. It has been in place for more than 40 years and it is a cornerstone of U.S./South Korean diplomatic relations.

Many specialists in the field of nonproliferation see a “hard and fast” policy against any expansion of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing as a key to stopping states like North Korea from pursuing these activities. That strategy hasn’t worked and, as a result, South Korea wants relief from the restriction in the now-decades-old treaty.

Negotiations over changes to the treaty have been going on since last December, but appear to be stalemated around a key set of issues. It is a delicate dance, as diplomats like to say, because if the U.S. leans too heavily on South Korea, it could sour relations between the two countries and spawn nationalist sentiment that might lead to a nuclear weapons program. Since the 1950s, South Korea has depended on the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a shield against aggression from its neighbor to the north.

Spent fuel with no place to put it?

But South Korea doesn’t appear to want its own weapons. Instead, what it has told the U.S. is that it wants to reprocess fuel from its growing commercial fleet and to create fuel for new reactors. The country has more than 10,000 tonnes of spent fuel stored at its civilian reactors. It is producing 700 tonnes per year of spent fuel and expects to run out of space by 2016. A geologic repository in the densely populated country seems out of the question.

The trouble is that the current treaty inked in 1972 allows South Korea to import nuclear reactor technology in return for a ban on enrichment and reprocessing. South Korea’s first commercial nuclear reactor entered revenue service in 1978 and the latest in 2012.

The big issue on the reprocessing side is what will be done with the plutonium extracted from the spent fuel. U.S. nonproliferation experts claim that its mere presence in South Korea, regardless of international controls and inspections, will inflame relations with North Korea. South Korean government officials call this reasoning nonsense, since North Korea has already been producing plutonium and has its own uranium enrichment capabilities.

Gary Samore, Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism

The current position of the U.S. government, as expressed by its chief negotiator Gary Samore, is that it does not want to change the treaty.

Instead, the U.S. wants South Korea to continue to get its nuclear fuel from France or the U.S. The country gets up to 30 percent per year of its nuclear fuel from the U.S. and the rest from France.

What’s good for the goose?

For its part, South Korea calls this position hypocritical, pointing out that Japan enriches uranium and reprocesses spent fuel. Even more to this point, South Korea says that the U.S., for strategic reasons, supported India’s request to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group even though India conducted nuclear weapons tests in 1974 and 1988. In short, South Korea is not buying what it calls a “double standard” from the U.S.

In response, U.S. diplomats have let slip to South Korean news media that they harbor a “deep distrust” of South Korea’s intentions due to a clandestine weapons effort that briefly operated in the 1970s under then President Park Jung-hee.

A face-saving plan offered in principle by the U.S. is for South Korea to adopt a so-called “proliferation resistant” technology for reprocessing fuel called pyroprocessing. The method does not initially separate plutonium in a way that allows it to be refined for use in a nuclear weapon. The U.S. has offered South Korea financial assistance to conduct tests on the technology. Critics call this a diplomatic fig leaf, saying that eventually weapons grade material could be extracted if the country really wants it.

For South Korea, the objectives for change are clear. What the U.S. will need are iron clad agreements that the South Korean government will never pursue “nuclear sovereignty,” and agree to international oversight and inspections.

Even with these measures, U.S. diplomats see enrichment and reprocessing in South Korea as “incentives” for North Korea to increase its investment in nuclear weapons. Nonproliferation experts remain divided about whether or not limiting South Korea’s access to enrichment and reprocessing will have any useful effect on its neighbor to the north.

Samore says that the U.S. hopes to ink a new treaty by 2014. He’s got his work cut out for him.

______________________

Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy and is a frequent contributor to ANS Nuclear Cafe.

ANS adopts position statement on U.S. global nuclear leadership through export-driven engagement

On Thursday, June 28, the American Nuclear Society’s Board of Directors formally adopted a position statement entitled U.S. Global Nuclear Leadership through Export-Driven Engagement. ANS position statements reflect the Society’s perspectives on issues of public interest that involve various aspects of nuclear science and technology. The text of the June 2012 position statement is below, and the full list of ANS positions statements can be accessed via the ANS website by clicking HERE.

U.S. Global Nuclear Leadership Through
Export-Driven Engagement

June 2012

ANS believes the U.S. should remain committed to facilitating an expansion of the peaceful use of nuclear energy through the export of U.S. nuclear goods and services.  Exports of nuclear technology provide the U.S. with important nonproliferation advantages, including consent rights on U.S. manufactured nuclear fuel, the ability to control the transfer of nuclear technology, and greater influence in the nuclear policies of U.S. partner nations. The U.S. possesses a strong nuclear technology portfolio and supply chain. The federal government should be an active partner in helping U.S. industry maintain and increase its market share of nuclear goods and services, as U.S. nuclear exports have the attendant benefits of improving global standards of nuclear safety and security and minimizing the risk of proliferation.

ANS believes that the U.S. should work with organizations such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group to limit the spread of enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) technology and that a competitive global market for fuel cycle services strongly discourages the spread of ENR technology.  Reasonable assurance of access to fuel and other services needed to operate their nuclear plants can dissuade nations from domestic development and deployment of ENR technology.

The U.S. is one of several nations that are capable of supporting the development of nuclear technology in emerging markets.  Those nations are aggressively promoting their nuclear technology with bilateral nuclear trade agreements that generally do not contain ENR prohibitions.  Many U.S. partner nations are unlikely to forswear their right to pursue ENR technologies, even if they have no intention to develop them.  Any U.S. insistence that its bilateral nuclear trade agreements ban development of indigenous ENR technologies would be counterproductive to its nonproliferation goals and put U.S. technologies at a competitive disadvantage.

In short, a U.S. nuclear export regime that restricts rather than promotes U.S. nuclear trade will ultimately reduce U.S. influence in shaping the safety and security norms of the global nuclear landscape.

In order to enhance U.S. nonproliferation goals through its export policies, ANS recommends that the U.S. government should:

  1. maintain a flexible approach for negotiating bilateral nuclear trade agreements (also known as 123 Agreements);
  2. continue developing a coordinated approach to promoting U.S. technology to other nations; and
  3. ensure U.S. nuclear export policies and procedures are transparent and responsive to the needs of  the U.S. nuclear industry.

__________________________

 

 

 

ANS’s Mark Peters testifies to Congress on recycling used nuclear fuel

On  Wednesday, June 6, Dr. Mark T. Peters appeared on behalf  of the American Nuclear Society before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.  Peters is the Deputy Laboratory Director for Programs at Argonne National Laboratory and testified at the invitation of the subcommittee.

The  hearing is titled “What’s Next for the U.S. – Korea Alliance.” Additional information, including all prepared testimony,  is available via the Committee website. Peters’ prepared testimony is below and can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking HERE.

 Recycling Used Nuclear Fuel: Balancing Energy and Waste Management Policies

Testimony to U.S. House of Representatives
Committee on Foreign Affairs
Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific

Mark T. Peters, American Nuclear Society
June 6, 2012

My name is Mark Peters, and I am the Deputy Laboratory Director for Programs at Argonne National Laboratory. However, today I am speaking on behalf of the American Nuclear Society; my remarks should not be considered as an official statement from Argonne or the Department of Energy.

Peters

I appreciate this opportunity to present the views of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) on used nuclear fuel recycling as a means to achieve an integrated solution to energy and waste management policy. The ANS is a not-for-profit, international, scientific, and educational organization with nearly 12,000 members worldwide. The core purpose of ANS is to promote awareness and understanding of the application of nuclear science and technology. The ANS also wishes to acknowledge its longstanding professional collaboration with the Korean Nuclear Society (KNS). For more than 40 years, our two organizations have worked together to promote the safe and secure use of nuclear technology and materials.

For decades, the United States has grappled with the multiple challenges of crafting a long-term solution for the management of used nuclear fuel. These persistent challenges have taken on new urgency in the wake of the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which has focused international attention on used nuclear fuel storage. Although the challenges of waste management require close scrutiny, these issues are most effectively considered within the context of an integrated policy for nuclear energy and nuclear waste management. Unfortunately, the United States is unique in its lack of such an integrated policy. Most other nations that rely on nuclear energy, including France, Russia, China, Japan, and Republic of Korea, have policies in place that promote development of used fuel recycling and advanced fast reactors, in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of their nuclear investments. We must consider our nuclear energy technology collaborations and partnerships within this global context.

At present, the United States’ strategic investments in advanced nuclear energy technologies are lagging; as a result, we rely increasingly on collaborative arrangements with foreign research institutions to conduct research in these areas. These collaborations provide advantages to both parties, and the United States has benefited from them. However, close alignment between government and nuclear industries in these nations speeds the international deployment of these cooperatively developed technologies, such as used fuel recycling and fast reactor technologies, while the United States has moved much more slowly in its adoption of them.

The Republic of Korea has publicly expressed its interest in incorporating electro-metallurgical reprocessing technology, commonly known as “pyroprocessing,” into its long-term nuclear fuel cycle plans. Pyroprocessing offers several potential benefits over current aqueous recycling techniques, such as the PUREX process being used in France and Japan today. These include the ability to recover minor actinides, which otherwise contribute significantly to the long-term radiotoxicity of used nuclear fuel; fewer releases of fission gases and tritium; and, the lack of production of pure plutonium, which helps to address proliferation concerns. Clearly, there will be engineering challenges inherent in the development of pyroprocessing technology, as there are with any other advanced manufacturing processes. However, these challenges can be addressed through joint research and development activities, and solving these challenges will have important implications for the United States as well as the Republic of Korea.

The American Nuclear Society believes that nuclear fuel recycling has the potential to reclaim much of the residual energy in used fuel currently in storage as well as used fuel that will be produced in the future, and that recycling offers a proven alternative to direct disposal of used fuel in a geological repository. In other nations, recycling of nuclear fuel with proper safeguards and material controls, under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has demonstrated that high-level waste volumes can be reduced safely and securely while improving the sustainability of energy resources.

It is the opinion of the ANS that the United States should begin planning a thoughtful and orderly transition to nuclear fuel recycling in parallel with the development of a geologic repository. Recycling would enhance the repository’s efficiency, eliminating the need for most complex and expensive engineered barriers and reducing the timeframe of concern from more than 100,000 years to a few hundred years.

The ANS also believes that the United States should accelerate development of fast spectrum reactors, which are uniquely capable of generating energy while consuming long-lived waste. Six decades ago, on December 20, 1951, scientists and engineers from Argonne National Laboratory started a small electrical power generator attached to an experimental fast reactor, creating enough energy to power four 200-watt electrical bulbs. That historic achievement demonstrated the peaceful use of nuclear energy and launched today’s global commercial nuclear energy industry. But it should not be overlooked that the first electricity generated through nuclear energy was produced using a fast reactor.

In closing, let me reiterate that the ANS believes that nuclear energy has a significant role to play in meeting the global energy demands of the 21st century, and that a global expansion of nuclear energy can be achieved safely and securely. I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

BACKGROUND

Current Recycling Technologies

PUREX: Current commercial used nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies are based on the PUREX process, a solvent extraction process that separates uranium and plutonium and directs the remaining minor actinides (neptunium, americium, and curium) along with all of the fission products to vitrified waste. The PUREX process has more than 50 years of operational experience. For example, the La Hague reprocessing facility in France treats used fuel from domestic and foreign power reactors. The plutonium recovered is recycled as a mixed-oxide fuel to generate additional electricity. This technology also is used for commercial applications in the United Kingdom and Japan.

There are a number of drawbacks to the PUREX process. PUREX does not recover the minor actinides (neptunium, americium, curium, and heavier actinide elements), which compose a significant fraction of the long-term radiotoxicity of used fuel. Advanced fast reactors can transmute and consume minor actinides if they are separated from other fission product elements, but incorporation of minor actinide separations into existing PUREX facilities adds complexity and is outside commercial operating experience. Moreover, existing international facilities do not capture fission gases and tritium; these are discharged to the environment within regulatory limits. Although plutonium is recycled as mixed oxide fuel, this practice actually increases the net discharge of minor actinides. Finally, the production of pure plutonium through PUREX raises concerns about materials security and proliferation of nuclear weapons-usable materials.

Pyroprocessing: Pyroprocessing is currently being used at the Idaho National Laboratory to treat and stabilize used fuel from the decommissioned EBR-II reactor. The key separation step, electrorefining, recovers uranium (the bulk of the used fuel) in a single compact process operation. Ceramic and metallic waste forms, for active metal and noble metal fission products respectively, are being produced and qualified for disposal in a geologic repository. However, the demonstration equipment used for this treatment campaign has limited scalability. Argonne National Laboratory has developed conceptual designs of scalable, high-throughput equipment as well as an integrated facility for commercial used fuel treatment, but to date only a prototype advanced scalable electrorefiner has been fabricated and successfully tested. Additionally, work is underway at Argonne to refine the fundamental understanding of pyrochemical processes to achieve greater control of the composition of the recovered materials, which will facilitate developing safeguards consistent with U.S. non-proliferation goals.

Fuel Cycle Research in the United States

In the United States, the primary organization with responsibility for the research and development of used fuel recycling technologies is the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE), through its Fuel Cycle Research and Development program. This program supports research to develop and evaluate separations and treatment processes for used nuclear fuel that will enable the transition from the current open fuel cycle practiced in the United States to a sustainable, environmentally acceptable, and economic closed fuel cycle. Ongoing projects related to reprocessing and waste management include:

• Using advanced modeling and simulation coupled with experiments to optimize the design and operation of separations equipment.
• Exploring an innovative one-step extraction process for americium and curium, radionuclides that are major contributors to nuclear waste toxicity, to reduce the cost of aqueous-based used-fuel treatment.
• Further developing pyrochemical processes for used fuel treatment. These processes enable the use of compact equipment and facilities, treatment of used fuel shortly after discharge from a reactor, and reduction of secondary waste generation.
• Developing highly durable and leach-resistant waste forms of metal, glass, and ceramic composition for safe, long-term disposal.

However, it must be noted that the United States increasingly relies on collaborative arrangements with foreign research institutions and universities to conduct research in these areas. For example, Argonne, Idaho, and other U.S. national laboratories are working with the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, in a series of joint studies sponsored by the United States and Republic of Korea, to study disposition options for used nuclear fuel, including pyroprocessing, in order to develop economic, sustainable long-term solutions, consistent with non-proliferation objectives, for nuclear energy production and waste management. The state of U.S nuclear research facilities is declining compared to steady investments being made in countries such as France, Russia, Japan, and Republic of Korea. More importantly, those governments, as part of their national energy policies, have committed to the development and deployment of advanced fast reactor technologies, which are an important element of an integrated energy and waste management policy.

Advanced Fast Reactor Technology

The American Nuclear Society believes that the development and deployment of advanced nuclear reactors based on fast-neutron fission technology is important to the sustainability, reliability, and security of the world’s long-term energy supply. Nearly all current nuclear reactors are of the “thermal neutron” design, and their capability to extract the energy potential in the uranium fuel is limited to less than 1% of that available. The remainder of the energy potential is left unused in the discharged fuel and in the uranium, depleted in U-235, that remains from the process of enriching the natural uranium in the isotope U-235 for use in thermal reactors. With known fast reactor technology, this unutilized energy can be harvested, thereby extending by a hundred-fold the amount of energy extracted from the same amount of mined uranium.

It is the opinion of the ANS that fast reactors in conjunction with nuclear fuel recycling can diminish the cost and duration of storing and disposing of waste. These cost savings may offset cost increases in the fuel cycle due to reprocessing and fuel re-fabrication. Virtually all long-lived heavy elements are eliminated during fast reactor operation, leaving a small amount of fission product waste that requires assured isolation from the environment for only hundreds of years. The design and construction of a geologic repository would be substantially less complex and costly. Just as importantly, a repository of this type could be located in a very broad range of areas, increasing the likelihood of multiple host locations.

Summary

The American Nuclear Society endorses development of used nuclear fuel recycling in fast neutron spectrum reactors in parallel with a geologic repository to secure an integrated, sustainable nuclear energy system for the United States. This initiative should balance the needs of the nuclear energy production sector with those of the waste management sector to achieve an integrated system that increases resource utilization for energy production, disposes waste in an environmentally acceptable manner, and is economic. The global nature of nuclear energy production and waste management encourages the continuation of U.S.-foreign collaborations to develop and demonstrate recycling and fast reactor technologies. In this regard, the relationship between the United States and Republic of Korea is of mutual benefit and of strategic importance to our nuclear energy and waste management policies.

_______________________

Congressional debate over terms of future 123 agreements

By Jim Hopf

In 2009, the United States and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed a “123” agreement, which allowed the transfer of US nuclear technology (e.g., reactors, etc.) to the UAE. As a condition of the agreement, the UAE gave up all rights to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel, now and at any point in the future. Thus, the UAE agreed to give up significant rights that are granted to it as a signee of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The UAE agreement is now fueling a debate in Washington as to whether or not similar conditions should apply to all future US 123 agreements with nations that want to start nuclear programs.

The debate has significance since several more 123 agreements will be considered in the near future, with nations such as Vietnam, Jordan, and possibly Saudi Arabia. Some of these nations (e.g., Jordan) have significant uranium reserves that they may desire to exploit someday, which may make them reluctant to give away any future enrichment rights.

Pros and Cons

The arguments for requiring new nuclear nations to give up rights to enrichment and reprocessing, as a condition of any 123 agreement with the US, are as follows:

  • Unlike power reactors, enrichment and reprocessing facilities can potentially give those nations access to weapons-useable nuclear materials, and could greatly shorten the time required to develop a weapon, if they ever chose to do so.
  • Given the mature, well-established, competitive world industry for uranium enrichment services (with multiple enrichment facilities in several developed nations), there will not be a need for developing countries to establish enrichment or reprocessing facilities.
  • It would not make economic (or practical) sense for a new nuclear nation with a small number of power reactors to develop enrichment or reprocessing capability and construct those expensive facilities. Thus, any desire to do so would be suspect.
  • Holding all nuclear entrants to such high standards would strengthen the international community’s arguments against less cooperative nations such as Iran.

There are, however, many arguments against requiring terms similar to the UAE agreement for all future 123 agreements. These include:

  • Such a (US) policy would have little effect since there are several developed nuclear nations, including France, Russia, China, and South Korea, competing in the world nuclear market that will not make such demands on potential customers.
  • Few new (developing) nations would be willing to surrender rights granted to them under the NPT, especially given that most nuclear supplier nations will make no such demands.
  • If (as a result) few such nations enter into 123 agreements with the US, the US will lose influence over those nations’ nuclear power programs, which would stem from their dependence on US technologies, and our involvement with their reactor operations.
  • It is possible that such nations would instead turn to suppliers with less safe reactor designs, and a lower level of experience and/or excellence in reactor operations.
  • Without an absolute no-enrichment requirement, the US may (on a case-by-case basis) be able to successfully negotiate 123 agreements that are stronger (stricter) than agreements offered by other nuclear supplier nations. With an absolute no future enrichment requirement, most nations will almost certainly instead enter into agreements with other supplier nations, which may make few if any demands.
  • If a 123 agreement with the US is in place, and the US therefore has influence and involvement with a country’s nuclear program, the US may be better able to convince that nation to not engage in fuel cycle activities in the future.
  • There are other ways to limit enrichment activities, including actions by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and ensuring that a reliable and adequate supply of enrichment services exists in the world market.
  • Finally, requirements for entering into an agreement with the US that are much stricter than those required by other suppliers will likely result in US reactor and nuclear technology companies being shut out of much, if not most, of the market in the developing world. In addition to any negative safety or proliferation impacts, this will have a significant negative economic and employment impact in the US.

House Bill

A bill, H.R. 1280, which essentially requires the same terms as the UAE agreement for all future 123 agreements, has been introduced in the House. It has passed the Foreign Affairs committee and is now being debated in the Rules committee. It may soon be voted on by the full House.

In addition to prohibiting enrichment or reprocessing facilities at any point in the future, the bill requires:

  • Limited access to facilities, equipment or materials by 3rd country nationals (personnel of a separate nationality to both the US and the developing nuclear nation).
  • Implementation of chemical and biological (weapon) production and stockpiling conventions.
  • Implementation of an export control system.
  • Cooperation with the US in preventing state sponsors of terrorism gaining access to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
  • A ban on (non-humanitarian) assistance to nations that have not signed the NPT.
  • Joint congressional approval for any changes or additions to the terms of new 123 agreements.
  • Liability protections for US nuclear suppliers similar to those given under the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (i.e., more protection than India is offering).

Tauscher – Poneman Letter

On January 10 of this year, Undersecretary of State for arms control and international security Ellen Tauscher and Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman wrote a letter to key congressional committee leaders. The letter stated that an administration internal policy review has concluded that future 123 agreements should be made on a case-by-case basis, and that the administration would not seek the same requirements agreed to by the UAE for all future agreements.

The letter gave many of the reasons listed above (and argued elsewhere) as to why an absolute no-enrichment-requirement for all 123 agreements would not be good policy. The letter also discussed other actions that may or are being taken, including strengthened enrichment activity guidelines agreed to by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, nuclear fuel reserves, fuel leasing arrangements, and progress towards establishing a Nuclear Fuel Bank.

On the basis of the above-referenced letter, it appears that the administration will not be in favor of the House bill. The bill also faces a very uncertain future in the US Senate.

Additional Thoughts

I find some encouragement in the fact that even the non-proliferation side now appears to have accepted that power reactors in developing countries do not present a significant proliferation risk, and that the focus should be on enrichment and/or reprocessing facilities. I’ve always believed this, since spent power reactor fuel is at least as hard to convert into weapons material as raw uranium ore. The widely held belief that Iran’s enrichment activities (independent of nuclear power plants) constitute a proliferation risk further supports this principle.

Now, the debate seems to have shifted to what is the best way to prevent such fuel cycle facilities from popping up in more countries. Given that there is ample enrichment capability in the (developed) world, any such limitations should not significantly hold back the deployment of nuclear power.

The administration and others have argued that new nuclear states are likely to be reluctant to give up enrichment rights granted to them under the NPT, since they have uranium reserves and may want to complete the supply chain, or they don’t fully trust the current supplier nations to reliably supply the needed enrichment services. I would add a psychological/political reason. Policies that restrict fuel cycle facilities (or nuclear technology in general, or even nuclear weapons) to a set of existing “advanced” nations implies a notion that “we are civilized enough to responsibly handle this technology, but you are not.” Such notions tend to produce negative or contrary responses from most people (or nations). They will be very inclined to opt for the suppliers who do not make such (condescending?) demands, especially given that the right to fuel cycle technology is enshrined in the NPT, which they willingly signed.

Also of note is the fact that natural gas prices in the U.S. are currently very low (~$2/MBTU) and may stay relatively low for some time. This may limit the prospects for new nuclear here in the U.S. This makes access to international markets—where natural gas prices are much higher—even more important to the U.S. nuclear industry. Small modular reactors (SMRs) in particular, are an area where the U.S. may be able to take the technological lead and reestablish leadership in the world nuclear industry. A healthy market for those SMRs, however, would be necessary.

Conclusion

It seems to me that policies like those outlined in H.R. 1280 would not provide any of their intended benefits unless there was an agreement between all nuclear supplier states to follow those policies. Without such an international agreement, all H.R. 1280 will do is harm the US nuclear industry, and have significant negative economic and employment impacts here at home.

H.R. 1280 may even have negative worldwide impacts in terms of nuclear safety as well as nuclear proliferation, since it will result in most, if not all, nuclear entrant states forging agreements with other nuclear supplier states instead. Those other states are likely to be willing to enter into nuclear supply agreements that have less stringent requirements than what the US would be likely to negotiate, on a case-by-case basis, in the absence of H.R. 1280.

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Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.