Nuclear Weapons

Plutonium Reprocessing: two steps forward, one step back.

08.11.06 | 4 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

The administration has submitted a $250M request to Congress to start work on a plutonium recycling program as part of its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, proposal. Trying to figure out exactly what the proposal is has been like trying to nail Jell-o to the wall. Whatever criticism is raised, DOE responds that, no, it isn’t quite that. So I was getting a good picture of what GNEP was not but could not figure out what it was.

Part of last year’s appropriation required that DOE produce a report on what they intended to actually do. Although months late, the report at least had a more or less specific proposal that outside analysts could critique. The plan was to take waste from light water reactors (that is, the normal nuclear reactors producing electricity around the country today), separate it into three parts: the comparatively innocuous uranium, the fission products, and the plutonium and other heaviest elements, or transuranics. The uranium would be sent to a low-level waste repository (although there is some argument about that), the fission products would go to a long-term geological repository, presumably Yucca Mountain, but that too is not absolutely certain, and the plutonium and other transuranics would be completely burned up as nuclear fuel in a “close-cycle” reaction. Since the transuranics will not work well as fuel in current light-water reactors, for every three light water reactors, we would have to build one fast-neutron reactor to burn the waste. [See, for example, the three bullet points at the top of p. 4 or the graphic on p. 11 of the report linked above.] Fast-neutron reactors have been built in the past but never successfully commercialized.

As I have written elsewhere, this idea makes good sense, in theory. The reason this is a bad idea is not that it violates the laws of physics but because the engineering, economics, and timing don’t work. It might be a good idea 70-100 years from now, but not now.

Even with those limitations, the proposal in the DOE report made more sense than the alternative, partial recycling as practiced by the French. One of the primary advocates of closed-cycle reprocessing is Phillip Finck of Argonne National Laboratory and, when he argues for closed-cycle reprocessing, he points out that it should not be confused with what the French are doing today, a process that has limited advantages and great costs. Summaries from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, state: “The second option, termed “limited recycling” by Dr. Finck, is currently in use in France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The process, called PUREX, separates the plutonium and uranium from the waste stream where they are re-used as fuel in a commercial nuclear reactor. However, since the spent plutonium/uranium fuel is not recycled again and the other fission products are not recycled at all, this limited recycling process only results in a 10% reduction in the total volume of produced waste. In addition, there are concerns that an increased supply of concentrated plutonium creates a risk of nuclear proliferation.” In a briefing presented on the Hill, Frank von Hippel of Princeton, a strong opponent of closed-cycle reprocessing, even included a slide called “Where Finck and I agree,” in which he cites Finck’s comments that the French recycle-once approach has insufficient benefits.

Well, with that as background, yesterday DOE held a telephone press conference on Thursday to announce what seems to be a proposal to essentially reproduce the French approach, plus a fast burner reactor program that would allow a later move to a closed cycle. An additional twist is that at the press conference Assistant Secretary Spurgeon cited a study by The Boston Consulting Group, which was working for the French plutonium reprocessing firm Areva, that argues that reprocessing and recycling through light-water reactors was economically sound. Not surprisingly, this analysis is far more optimistic than the National Academy of Science’s study or the Harvard study. But then the Boston report contains this disclaimer:

“This report was prepared by The Boston Consulting Group at the request of AREVA. BCG reviewed publicly available information and proprietary data provided by AREVA, but did not undertake any independent verification of the facts contained in those source materials. Changes in these facts or underlying assumptions could change the results reported in this study. Any other party using this report for any purpose, or relying on this report in any way, does so at their own risk. No representation or warranty, express or implied, is made in relation to the accuracy or completeness of the information presented herein or its suitability for any particular purpose.”

’nuff said.