Nuclear Weapons

Plutonium getting a mention in State of the Union Address?

01.30.06 | 3 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

A couple of articles in the energy trade press [link] have said that President Bush may announce a major new energy initiative in the State of the Union Address. This is a program that has been in planning for over a year. Originally it was called the Global Nuclear Energy Initiative, or GNEI, pronounced “genie,” but apparently the Administration decided that acronym was a bit too cute, with too many “getting out of the bottle” snipes. More recent articles in the Washington Post [link] and Wall Street Journal report that the program has been renamed the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and is not quite ready for prime time so will probably not appear in the Address but will be unveiled in a couple of months. [link] If it does get a mention, I will return to this on Wednesday.

By all accounts, the centerpiece of GNEP will be plutonium reprocessing and recycling. This is one of those ideas that is great in theory but doesn’t work in practice. The plan is to reduce nuclear waste by repeatedly recycling it through a new (in the US at least) type of power reactor, a fast neutron reactor. [more]

These are similar to the breeder reactors that the US cancelled three decades ago. The current reactors, thermal neutron reactors, can only use recycled plutonium once and then the fuel has to be disposed of like other spent fuel. A fast neutron reactor would burn up all the heavy elements. And the physics works; what the advocates claim is true, in theory. The problem isn’t the physics, it is the engineering and economics. Handling the intensely radioactive waste is dangerous and extremely expensive. And what you get at the end is fuel to put back into a nuclear reactor. But that fuel would be more expensive than just going back to the uranium mine and getting fresh uranium. And, with known reserves of uranium, fresh uranium will continue to be cheaper for at least a half century. Eventually, recycling plutonium might be a good idea and make economic sense but it is not going to pay for several decades at the earliest. [I have a short briefing that contains references, both pro and con, here: [link]

Whatever gets into the Address, the recently-passed Energy and Water bill [link] contains funding for a rapidly expedited program to commit to a particular recycling technology, even chose a site, and begin construction in 2010. The Energy and Water bill is enormous and, while this program is $130 million, it is small change in the multi-billion dollar bill and can slip in without much notice. These provisions were included at the last minute with very little debate. The program was introduced by Congressman Hobson from Ohio and supported by Senator Domenici of New Mexico. Reading the reprocessing legislation, it looks like the advocates are trying to rush the program, perhaps for political, not technical, reasons: once these programs get started with a few million spent here, a few million there, they are almost impossible to kill. But there is no rush to begin recycling.

Plutonium recycling is being sold as an alternative to opening the nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, but it will not be ready in time to affect Yucca. And remember, for recycling to work requires building a whole new fleet of newly-designed fast neutron reactors. As Frank von Hippel at Princeton University puts it, the advocates of recycling are trying to replace a difficult political problem with an impossible political problem.