Category Archives: Spent nuclear fuel reprocessing

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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GE-Hitachi proposes to burn U.K. plutonium stockpile

An advanced reactor could be used to consume 112 tonnes of weapons grade material

By Dan Yurman

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy has proposed to the U.K. government to build an advanced nuclear reactor that would consume the country’s stockpile of surplus plutonium.

The technology is called PRISM, which stands for Power Reactor Innovative Small Module. If accepted, it would be very different than the other proposals to process plutonium, including those that would turn it into mixed oxide fuel (MOX).

According to GE Hitachi, the PRISM reactor disposes of a great majority of the plutonium as opposed to simply reusing it over again. This process takes it out of circulation forever.

PRISM cutaway (Source: GE Hitachi)

Fuel for the PRISM reactor is created by converting the plutonium from powder form mixing it with uranium and zirconium to make a metal fuel. The resulting spent fuel contains plutonium in a form that cannot be used to make nuclear weapons.

Eric Loewen, chief engineer on the project (and president of the American Nuclear Society), said that the waste form is much the same as what comes out of light water reactors. Once the plutonium has been in the PRISM reactor for five years, it is mixed with other nuclear materials that make it nearly impossible to retrieve the metal for the purpose of making a weapon.

The PRISM reactor is a so-called “fast reactor” because it uses liquid metal sodium rather than water to cool the system. The sodium allows the neutrons to maintain higher energies and to cause fission in elements such as plutonium more efficiently than light water reactors.  (large image)

Heritage of EBR-II

Based on the design of the Integral Fast Reactor (EBR-II) developed at the Argonne National Laboratory in Idaho, the PRISM reactor uses passive safety features that cause it to shut down automatically. In the event of a complete loss of electrical power, it simply stops working and passively dissipates residual heat. EBR-II was canceled in 1994, but not before a safety analysis showed that there were no technical barriers to getting a license and safely operating one.

The Argonne National Laboratory as it appeared in the 1990s when work was stopped on EBR-II.

According to a fact sheet from GE Hitachi, the PRISM reactor’s relatively small size and simpler design would allow it to be built in modules and transported for assembly on site. Another benefit of the reactor is that while it is disposing of weapons materials, it is also generating electricity.

According to the proposal, there would be two PRISM reactors each generating 300 MW of electrical power. It would take about five years to burn through the 112 tonnes of material. The reactors could be used for up to 60 years.

The UK government had considered building a MOX plant at the Sellafield site where the plutonium is stored, but it canceled those plans as the Japanese government stopped orders for MOX following the Fukushima earthquake.

Total life-cycle costs

GE Hitachi contends that the PRISM reactor will cost less to build than a new MOX plant. It is costing the U.K. government £2 billion (about $3.1 billion) a year to maintain the plutonium inventory.

In the United States, the government is building a MOX plan that will process 34 short tons of plutonium, turning it into the equivalent of 1,700 PWR MOX fuel assemblies for light water reactors at a cost of $4.5 billion.

MOX fuel burnup process. (Image: World Nuclear News)

If an assumption is made that the delivered cost of the PRISM reactor is $4,500/Kw, then 600 MW of power would cost $2.7 billion or about the cost of one year of storing the plutonium in its current form.

Additional costs would include a fuel fabrication facility, the fuel itself, and spent fuel disposal. Life-cycle costs would have to be taken into account to get a true comparison.

The U.K. government hasn’t said what it thinks of the GE Hitachi proposal, but it has talked about what it needs to know to make a decision.

Feasibility and safety issues

In addition to financial feasibility, U.K. energy minister Charles Hendry told parliament that the government needs to know the work can be done safely and securely. He said U.K.’s Department of Energy & Climate Change would examine the PRISM proposal. He also said that the government is considering converting 28 tonnes of foreign-owned plutonium at the Sellafield site into MOX.

GE Hitachi VP Danny Roderick

GE Hitachi vice president Danny Roderick told financial wire services that while the government is looking at the plutonium as a security risk, his firm sees it as an asset that can be burned to make electricity.

The plutonium was created as a result of nuclear spent fuel reprocessing, which took place at the Sellafield site starting in the 1950s.

In October 2010, GE Hitachi signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site to investigate the feasibility of constructing a prototype of the PRISM reactor there.

Coincidentally, the proposal to use the technology from EBR-II comes almost 60 years to the week that electricity was first generated on the Idaho desert in its predecessor EPR-I.

At 1:23 p.m. on December 20, 1951, Argonne National Laboratory director Walter Zinn scribbled into his log book, “Electricity flows from atomic energy. Rough estimate indicates 45 kw.” At that moment, scientists from Argonne and the National Reactor Testing Station watched four light bulbs glow, powered by the world’s first nuclear reactor.

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Yurman

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

 

UK nuclear safety report clears way for new build

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne delivers Mike Weightman’s report to Parliament

by Dan Yurman

Mike Weightman, chief nuclear inspector

There is no reason to stop or slow down the development of new nuclear power stations or change the selected sites for them, says a report issued on October 10 by the United Kingdom’s Office of Nuclear Regulation. A 300-page final report prepared by safety expert Mike Weightman reviewed the events that took place at Fukushima, Japan. It says that the U.K. is taking the right steps to address the design basis for new nuclear facilities, including issues such as earthquakes and floods. (video interview)

The report emphasized that there is no fundamental weakness in the U.K. nuclear reactor licensing program or in the safety assessment principles and processes that support it.

Weightman wrote that he found no reason to change the sites selected for new reactors.

“I remain confident that our UK nuclear facilities have no fundamental safety weaknesses. The Office for Nuclear Regulation already requires protection of nuclear sites against the worst-case scenarios that are predictable for the UK.

But we are not complacent. Our philosophy is one of continuous improvement. No matter how high our standards, the quest for improvement must never stop. We will ensure lessons are learned from Fukushima. Action has already been taken in many cases, with work under way to further enhance safety at UK sites.”

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne told Parliament that the report will help the nuclear industry remain committed to improving current and future nuclear power stations.

Critical Mass
New nuclear reactors in the U.K.
Site Consortium Year MW
Bradwell EDF, Centrica 2024 1,600
Heysham EDF, Centrica 2025 1,600
Hinkley Point EDF, Centrica 2018 1,600
Hinkley Point EDF, Centrica 2019 1,600
Oldbury RWE, Eon, & Npower 2023 1,600
Sellafield GDF Suez, Iberdola 2022 1,600
Sellafield GDF Suez, Iberdola 2025 1,600
Sizewell EDF, Centrica 2022 1,600
Sizewell EDF, Centrica 2022 1,600
Wylfa RWE, Eon, & Npower 2020 1,100
Wylfa RWE, Eon, & Npower 2022 1,100
Wylfa RWE, Eon, & Npower 2024 1,100
 Financial Times May 9, 2011    

The report identifies 38 additional areas for further review. The topics include emergency response mechanisms, dealing with prolonged loss of off-site power, and risks associated with various types of natural disasters.

The report also pointed out, however, that the combination of events composed of a record-high tsunami triggered by an unprecedented earthquake along the Pacific rim are unlikely to impact nuclear reactors in the U.K.

Weightman also said that human factors played a significant role in the Fukushima disaster. He wrote that as more information becomes available, “there is considerable scope for lessons learned about human behavior in severe accident conditions.”

Even as Weightman was issuing his report, Electricite de France was issuing a revised schedule that could push back start-up of the U.K. first new reactor at Hinkley Point from 2018 to 2020. One reason is that despite Weightman’s optimistic views, the U.K. joint regulatory agencies have delayed giving interim approval for the Westinghouse AP1000 and Areva EPR reactors designs.

The nuclear safety review, however, was received warmly by the U.K. nuclear industry. Volker Beckers, the head of RWE, told financial wire services that the report opens the door to nuclear energy being an important part of the U.K. energy mix. RWE has plans to build up to 6 Gwe of new nuclear power in the U.K. by 2025.

Royal Academy urges caution

Not everyone was optimistic about the report’s findings. The Royal Academy of Engineering issued a statement warning that the pursuit of nuclear energy must be balanced against risks.

“The seriousness and potential global nature of accidents in the nuclear industry bring particular challenges. Continued vigilance, transparency and cooperation by all countries and organisations must be maintained on issues of safety and security. The potential scale of a disaster means that, despite the fact that accidents are rare, traditional probabilistic methods of assessing the risk should be supplemented with contingency plans to deal with all conceivable eventualities.”

The Academy called for deep geologic disposal of spent fuel and remained silent on the issue of reprocessing.

Royal Society calls for MOX

Britain’s Royal Society, a scientific group, weighed in as well. It called for development of new mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel facilities to dispose of the U.K.’s huge inventory of surplus plutonium. The U.K. has a reported stockpile of 112 tonnes.

Roger Cashmore, chair of the Royal Society  working group, and head of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, said that converting the plutonium to MOX is the only reliable way to take it out of circulation. Failure to proceed in this direction, he said, undermines the credibility of the government’s position relative to nonproliferation efforts.

The Royal Society report said :

“There is no proliferation proof nuclear fuel cycle. The dual use risk of nuclear materials and technology and in civil and military applications cannot be eliminated.”

For these reasons, the Royal Society said that the government should reconsider its plan to close the Sellafield reprocessing plant once current orders are completed.

__________

Yurman

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

Japan’s search for nuclear export deals

The hunt is on in Vietnam, Turkey, and elsewhere

By Dan Yurman

Yoshihiko Noda, new prime minister of Japan (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Japanese government, in close cooperation with some of the nation’s largest heavy industrial manufacturers, is seeking to export Japan’s nuclear technologies, products, and services despite the loss of six reactors on March 11 to a combination of a record earthquake and massive tsunami. The replacement of Prime Minister Naoto Kan with 54-year-old Yoshihiko Noda, a career politician and the current finance minister, may play a key role in achieving success.

Prime Minister Kan ended his term with a strong call for the nation to retreat from dependence on nuclear energy. At one point he also tried to shut down efforts to continue exports even though he had played a leading role inking a deal with Vietnam in October 2010 for two reactors.

When this policy tilt became apparent on August 5, Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano prevailed on Kan to back off. The country’s industrial exports are needed to pay for its lack of agricultural self sufficiency, and it depends on high value deals like new reactors. According to the Wall Street Journal, Japan produces only 40 percent of the food it needs to feed its population. Basic economics demands that the country sell finished goods abroad to pay for food imports at home.

The problem of supplying the baseload power for manufacturing at home remains a major issue. Platts reported that as of September 1, 2011, only 11 (10 GWe) of Japan’s 54 (49 GWe) reactors were operating. The rest were closed for maintenance and safety checks. While some have completed those tasks, provincial officials are adamant about not letting them restart without assurances that they are safe. Politics, not technology, is pushing the country’s electric utilities into plans for rolling brownouts and possible blackouts.

Noda has said that the stable supply of electricity is the lifeblood of the economy.  A combination of arm twisting and economic incentives may convince provincial officials to relent.  Jobs associated with nuclear exports may be one of the tools in Noda’s hands.   As a result, it appears that in addition to getting the reactors back online, the government is also focused on the multi-billion yen needed to build new reactors overseas.

For now, a key factor in Japan’s favor is that Japan Steel Works (JSW) is one of the world’s few companies capable of producing large forgings for new nuclear reactor pressure vessels.  However, the multi-year backlog of orders has made the work an attractive target.

Mitsubishi plans to build its own large forgings plant so that it won’t have to wait in line at JSW. International competition comes from South Korea and Russia. The United Kingdom is said to be planning a large forgings plant, as is India.  Both countries should be able to produce them within the next five years if their respective governments provide the necessary financial support.

Vietnam deal back on the front burner

Prior to the March 11 events, Japan had inked a deal with Vietnam to build two of its planned eight 1000-MW reactors. Japan has been training Vietnamese nuclear engineers for years in preparation for the project. Japan, however, is in second place in Vietnam when it comes to nuclear deals. Russia is building the first two plants and will provide all of the fuel for them as well as taking back the spent fuel at the end of each cycle.

Talks with Vietnam to execute the provisions of the deal and begin construction will restart this month. Government officials from both countries are scheduled to meet September 8 and 9 in Tokyo to layout project plans.

For its part, Vietnam pronounced itself happy the deal is back on the table. Vietnam’s ambassador to Japan Nguyen Phu Binh told the Manichi News on August 31 that he wants to see construction get underway in his country’s southern province of Ninh Thuan. He told the Manichi News, “I believe Japan will use the [Fukushima] crisis to learn important lessons and develop great technology.”

Turkey swaps negotiating tables, but keeps talking

Japan has been involved in off-and-on negotiations with Turkey to build that nation’s second nuclear power station at Sinop, some 440 miles east of Istanbul on the Black Sea coast. Paradoxically, Turkey’s first nuclear power station, a 4.8 GWe monster, is being built by the Russians at Mersin, about 600 miles southeast of Istanbul on the country’s Mediterranean coast. The Sinop site will be a similar size in terms of power generation capacity.

One would have thought that in terms of delivery of large components by sea, Turkey would put the Russians on the Black Sea and the Japanese on the Mediterranean, but that’s not how it worked out. The Japanese were never in the running for the first tender, which went to the Russians as the sole bidder.

Toshiba was involved in the first round of negotiations for the second site with Turkey last December, with TEPCO as its partner. Since March 11, that bid team has had to withdraw. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is now taking a crack at closing a deal by teaming up with Kansai Electric. It turns out that Turkey wants pressurized water technology, which makes Kansai a competent competitor due to its operational experience with this type of reactor in Japan.

The Toshiba/TEPCO team also withdrew from the South Texas Project in the United States, forcing NRG to stop all work on the development of twin 1350-MW ABWR reactors at a site south of Houston, Tex.

Lithuania looms in the future

Meanwhile, Hitachi, another industrial giant, is negotiating to build new reactors in Lithuania. Last July, Hitachi President Hiroaki Nakanishi said while traveling to promote the sale that his view is that the demand for new reactors will remain steady in foreign markets over the long-term. He noted that winning deals requires help from the government. There are opportunities for new reactors, fuel, operations and maintenance, and reprocessing of spent fuel.

The Russians view Lithuania as their provincial backyard and may put up a stiff fight to win the project. A similar battle is expected over the Czech Republic’s five-reactor Temelin new build, where Toshiba is competing against the Russians and Areva.

Middle East opportunities?

An interesting development is that Hitachi told Kyodo News in July that the company will keep to its goals for developing new nuclear reactor business in Asia and the Middle East, despite fears that the Fukushima crisis might deter some nations from going in this direction.

The business plan was drawn up prior to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The company says it sees no reason to change it.

Tatsuro Ishizuka, Hitachi vice president for business development, told the news service on July 20 that the company hopes to get orders for 20 new reactors in Asia and the Middle East.

“We will give priorities to negotiations with India, Vietnam, the U.S., and other countries with growing energy demand,” he said.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is reported to be planning to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2030, with the first two operational by 2021. According to wire service reports, it plans to have 20 percent of its electricity come from nuclear reactors.

Forgoing uranium enrichment to fuel them would help tamp down the Middle East’s volatile politics by preventing the massive nuclear new build from setting off an arms race with other countries.

____________

Yurman

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

# # #

Nuclear News’ 17th annual vendor/contractor issue

The August issue of Nuclear News is available in hard copy and electronically for American Nuclear Society members (click here—log-in required).

The issue contains a 122-page special section containing advertisements and “advertorial” information about products and services provided by various companies serving the nuclear industry.

In addition, the August issue contains the following feature articles:

  • The Advanced Test Reactor National Scientific User Facility
  • 2011 ATR Users Week—Meeting the Needs of the Nuclear Community
  • A report on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety
  • A perspective by former Sen. George Voinovich on enabling nuclear energy and the prospects for new nuclear

Additional news items of note in the August issue: Appeals court rejects lawsuit to stop the Department of Energy from ending the Yucca Mountain project, but leaves the door open; Xcel Energy and the federal government settle on used fuel lawsuits; tests show that commercial off-the-shelf computer components can withstand the space environment; the Interior Secretary withdraws 1 million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon from new uranium mining claims; universities and national laboratories to collaborate on nuclear security; the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office tests new technology at Belmont Stakes; major concrete repair extends Crystal River-3’s outage to 2014; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves license renewal for Prairie Island and Salem-1 and -2; poll shows that residents living near nuclear plants continue to favor nuclear power; the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission receives three bids to build first nuclear power plant; referendum ends plans to reintroduce nuclear power in Italy; and much more.

Past issues of Nuclear News are available here.

This post first appeared on the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

ANS issues report on spent fuel

The American Nuclear Society issues a comprehensive spent fuel report

by Dan Yurman

spent fuel canistersOne day ahead of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s draft recommendations for managing spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste, the American Nuclear Society on July 28 issued its own review of spent fuel management options.

The Blue Ribbon Commission  report recommends interim storage and a renewed hunt for a permanent geologic repository. This will raise the profile of salt as an option, which will bring the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in New Mexico, back into the equation as a possible host site.

Critics of the expected recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission say that reprocessing is a viable option and that the commission’s dour outlook on fast breeder reactors is not justified by current efforts in China, Russia, and India.

Proponents say that the commission’s recommendations represent a consensus political judgment that works in an off election year. It won’t make Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) mad, which keeps him in the traces for President Obama’s heavy lifting in the Senate.

In the meantime, ANS notes that the study will help citizens, thought and opinion leaders, and elected officials have a rational dialog about the facts of managing spent fuel.

Here’s the text of ANS’s press release

La Grange Park, IL – July 28 – The Report of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) President’s Special Committee on Used Nuclear Fuel Management was issued today, ANS President Eric P. Loewen, PhD, announced. “This report demonstrates the vitality and relevance of the Society to the continuing discussion about the future of nuclear energy,” Loewen said.

In early 2010, then ANS President Tom Sanders recognized the importance of the question of what to do with used nuclear fuel and formed the President’s Special Committee on Used Nuclear Fuel Management. Eleven members of ANS worked to prepare the 64 page report which describes feasible used nuclear fuel management options and explores the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Professor Audeen Fentiman, professor of nuclear engineering at Purdue University and Chair of the Special Committee said in describing the report, “members of the Committee worked long hours in order to create this document and we believe that it will be of considerable value in shaping the debate about the management of used nuclear fuel.”

When asked about the report, former ANS President Tom Sanders noted, “I was concerned that too much of the conversation about used nuclear fuel was based on unsound scientific and engineering principles, and I firmly believed that the role of ANS is to provide unbiased reporting so that citizens and policy makers are able to make informed judgments about nuclear issues. Our hope is that our work would also be useful input to the report of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.”

Concluded Loewen, “The Report will serve as the chief source of information about this issue; the painstaking care and thoughtfulness with which the committee members acted is ample evidence of what the Society does best: solid research, unblemished by an agenda other than the search for truth. They all deserve our thanks and respect.”

For more information about the American Nuclear Society, visit www.ans.org.
To view the report, follow the link.

Established in 1954, ANS is a professional organization of engineers and scientists devoted to the peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. Its 11,500 members come from diverse technical backgrounds covering the full range of engineering disciplines as well as the physical and biological sciences. They are advancing the application of these technologies to improve the lives of the world community through national and international enterprise within government, academia, research laboratories and private industry.

__________________

Yurman

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

 

Nuclear Waste Policy Recommendations from Blue Ribbon Commission

By Jim Hopf

On May 13, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future released its draft conclusions and recommendations. Despite its more general sounding title, the commission’s work mostly concerned the nuclear waste issue. It was created by President Obama’s administration primarily to investigate alternatives to the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, after the administration moved to shut that program down. While the commission did release some recommendations on other issues such as advanced reactors and Fukishima, this post will focus on its recommendations concerning nuclear waste policy.

Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations

A summary of the key conclusions and recommendations is as follows:

One or more geologic repositories must be sited and developed at some point.

  • No foreseeable future reactor and/or fuel cycle technology will avoid the need for at least one final repository.
  • There is scientific consensus that deep geologic disposal is the best option for final nuclear waste disposition.
  • The process for siting and developing the repository should be objective and scientific.
  • The performance standards for any repository should be set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (as they are now).
  • Repository siting should be consent-based, with all levels of government (federal, state, and local) involved in all parts of the process, from the very beginning.

One or more centralized interim storage sites for used fuel should be developed.

  • The fuel would be stored at these sites for up to ~100 years.
  • Such facilities should be developed and licensed using the same standards and methods used to develop a repository.
  • Decommissioned plants should be first in line to have their used fuel taken to a centralized storage facility.
  • There are, however, no technical or safety reasons why used fuel can not be stored at the plant sites, for a similar period.

There should be a sustained, federally supported R&D effort to develop advanced reactors and fuel cycles.

  • While not eliminating the need for at least one repository, such technology development can increase safety, reduce costs, improve resource utilization, and minimize proliferation risks.

A new, independent organization should be created to site and develop the repository and centralized storage facilities, along with any waste storage and transportation infrastructure.

  • The new organization would be more independent of the government (i.e., the Department of Energy).
  • It would have more institutional and programmatic stability.
  • The organization would have assured, steady access to the Nuclear Waste Fund to perform the necessary activities.

Any real answers–or just stalling?

All in all, there is not much in the way of new insights here. The recommendation for long-term used fuel storage (to allow the repository issue to be kicked down the road) was expected from the very beginning. They say that siting of repositories or centralized storage facilities should be consent based, but do not offer much new in terms of solving the (so far) intractable problem of getting such consent. The commission also doesn’t explain how or why it will be significantly less difficult to site centralized storage facilities than it was (or will be) to site a repository. History suggests that it won’t.

Yucca Mountain, north crest

Experience shows that problems with siting always occur at the state level. Many may be surprised to learn that such projects generally have support at the local level (from both the people and the government). As with nuclear power plants, Yucca Mountain enjoyed support in the local, rural communities. The reason for this is that the benefits to the local area, in terms of jobs and tax base, etc., are significant. On the state level, such benefits are much more diluted, but since there is only one repository in the United States, the state still feels singled out and put upon, and has fears of being stigmatized.

My understanding is that in Scandinavia—the one place where consent appears to have been obtained to build repositories—there is no “state” government, just federal and local. Is that a coincidence? I think not.

The one thing the commission recommends that tries to take a stab at the consent problem is the suggestion that the waste be handled by a new “objective” and “independent” organization. Over the years, some distrust has developed between some populations and the DOE (mainly in the West, due to weapons testing, etc.). Getting the DOE out of the picture could help somewhat, but I don’t see it fundamentally altering the situation described above.

The commission also does not do much to clarify any significant benefits of setting up centralized storage facilities, as opposed to just leaving the used fuel in storage at the plant sites. In addition to the significant cost of siting and developing the central storage facilities and moving the fuel there, the waste transport involved will generate significant political resistance. Why would anyone decide to spend a large amount of political capital to do this? As the commission itself states, the risks—and costs—of just keeping the fuel in dry storage at the plant sites is very low.

It appears (to me) that the main impetus behind the centralized storage idea is to appear to be “doing something” about the waste issue, now that the repository has been delayed by decades. My personal view is that this will not happen (due to the lack of any real justification), and the used fuel will remain stored at the plant sites.

Yucca Mountain

The fact that Yucca Mountain was not even considered by the Blue Ribbon Commission is unfortunate. In a highly critical recently released report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that the administration’s shutdown of the Yucca program was for purely political (as opposed to scientific or technical) reasons. The GAO also concludes that the Yucca decision will put us back to square one in terms of siting and developing a repository, which will result in decades of delay, as well as wasting most of the money spent so far on the program. It will also result in larger amounts of fuel being stored at plant sites, for much longer periods. For the above reasons, the GAO report recommended that the administration consider restarting the Yucca program.

Many other parties are also bitterly opposed to the abrupt and political termination of the Yucca program. Many assert that the DOE did not have the authority (under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act) to withdraw the Yucca license application, and that the NRC does not have the authority to stop the licensing review. Lawsuits have already been filed. Also, congressional investigations of the NRC and the DOE have started. There is a good chance that the DOE will be ordered to restart the program, or that the NRC will be ordered to finish the licensing process.

In addition to the issues identified by the GAO report, one of the main (if not THE main) impact of starting over on the repository is that it will allow one of the most potent arguments against nuclear energy to live on for decades. A large fraction of the public believes that the nuclear waste problem is intractable, and that there is no technological solution. This is not true. The Blue Ribbon Commission concurred (with the GAO) that the main obstacles to repository siting are political, as opposed to scientific. Despite scientific opinion, until a repository is sited and licensed, many people will continue to believe that there is no solution, which will result in significantly more opposition to new nuclear power plants, and more use of (truly damaging) fossil fuels in the future.

A possible compromise?

The concern raised above has me thinking about a possible compromise on Yucca that could be of some value. While I believe that proceeding with Yucca is the best option, another option (that would be far better than nothing) would be to have the NRC complete the licensing process (and approve the repository, presumably). The administration would then state that although Yucca has been shown to be an acceptable long-term solution, they believe that there are (even) better solutions (e.g., reprocessing) that should be pursued instead. To that end, the fuel will be stored for a few more decades while those other options are explored. If nothing pans out, there is always the (acceptable) Yucca option.

Such an approach would let Nevada get its way in terms of avoiding (or at least greatly delaying) the Yucca repository, but it may go a long way toward alleviating public concerns over the “intractable” nuclear waste problem. It’s possible that this could eliminate most of the opposition to nuclear that is due to waste concerns. Many would argue that Nevada would never go for such a deal, since NRC approval would carry too much political weight in terms of restarting the program. On the other hand, as I discussed earlier, the courts and/or congressional pressure/investigations may end up forcing the NRC to complete the licensing review anyway.

____________________________________________________

Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer at EnergySolutions, 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.

Waste not, want not

The time has come for the U.S. to recycle its spent nuclear fuel

By Dale Klein, Ph.D.

Stubborn resistance to the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, driven by some long-held myths, has caused the United States to fall behind other countries as the rest of the world moves toward a “closed fuel cycle” by recycling its nuclear fuel.

More than 30 years of inactivity in this area has diminished our technological capability and intellectual capital to compete internationally. Not surprisingly, little funding has been available for radio-chemistry in our universities during that time, to a point where we now are all but irrelevant on the world stage.

Areva's reprocessing center in La Hague, France

France, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia, India, and China all have invested substantially in programs to reprocess spent fuel. They have moved forward for two reasons: first, reprocessing recovers significant energy value from spent fuel that contributes to energy security. And, reprocessing substantially reduces the volume and radiotoxicity of high-level nuclear waste.

The once-through nuclear fuel cycle, which is our practice here in the United States, is an enormous waste of potential energy.

Part of the problem is one of perception:  For decades, spent nuclear fuel has inaccurately been referred to as waste. But it is not waste. In fact, compared with other fuels used in the production of electricity, the energy density of uranium is remarkable–fully 95 percent of the energy value in a bundle of spent nuclear fuel rods remains available for re-use.

The true waste is in our failure to capitalize on this valuable and abundant domestic source of clean energy. That’s something we can ill afford to do, particularly in a carbon constrained environment.

Spent fuel pool

Utilities operating nuclear power plants continue to store spent nuclear fuel rods on site in pools of water, as they have for more 30 years, before eventually moving them to dry cask storage. And while there is some debate over whether the casks should be located in one central storage site, the practice is widely accepted as safe and secure.

That’s the first myth–that we don’t know how to safely store nuclear spent fuel.

Critics of reprocessing also cite the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation as the biggest reason to oppose recycling. That, too, has acquired mythical status. The truth is that such concerns are largely unfounded.

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.

If the United States is to get in the game and reverse decades of intransigence, it must establish an infrastructure for recycling nuclear fuel. The best way to do that, I believe, is by creating a public-private partnership that operates outside normal appropriations and has a charter to manage the fuel over a period of decades.

The government’s Blue Ribbon Commission, chartered by the Department of Energy, is charged with making recommendations for the safe, long-term management of spent fuel. The 15-member commission is to issue a draft report this summer, with a final report to be completed in January 2012.

Unless we act soon, within 10 years the United States will be the only major country in the world with nuclear power that lacks recycling capability. The time has come to get over our historic resistance to recycling nuclear fuel. After all, how can we tell other countries what they should or should not do with their nuclear waste when we refuse to take action ourselves?

_________________________________

Klein

Dale Klein, Ph.D., is associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Texas System and Associate Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. He was a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2006-2010 and served as its chairman from 2006-2009.

 

About the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin:

The Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin initiates compelling research on some of the most pressing issues facing America today–issues vital to our nation’s energy security and economic vitality. Through a multi-disciplinary, collaborative approach with academia, government, and private industry, the Energy Institute seeks practical solutions to real-world challenges–good policy based on good science.

For more on the Energy Institute, visit here.