Nuclear pyroprocessing has serious problems

South Korea’s Nuclear Blues  The Diplomat, By  Sebastian Sarmiento-Saher  June 19, 2013“…..Assuming that South Korea does gain approval to conduct pyroprocessing, it may take years to do so in a way that is both technically and economically viable. The Diplomat spoke with Olli Heinonen, a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, who said that “[t]he product to the ROK pyroprocessing scheme is a uranium/transuranium/zirconium fuel, which is not suitable to fuel ROK’s LWR [Light Water Reactor] or CANDU [Canada Deuterium Uranium] reactors. Thus ROK is developing a prototype Sodium Fast Reactor (SFR), which is planned to be operational around 2028.  A commercial scale SFR is envisioned to be available by the mid of the Century.”

In addition to a long wait time, pyroprocessing results in other fissile materials like Neptunium that can be used for nuclear bombs and must be safeguarded. Neptunium must be separated out, but as Dr. Heinonen added, “[i]t is fairly easy and straight forward for the IAEA to monitor and confirm that this does not take place.” This will mean that additional safeguarding efforts would need to be implemented – all of which will ultimately depend on South Korea’s willingness to abide by them.

Finally, how proliferation resistant is pyroprocessing in terms of achieving pure plutonium metal needed for nuclear weapons and timing? Dr. Heinonen gave his take: “The fact that plutonium is not fully separated from other elements gives to the ROK officials basis to argue that this difference makes pyroprocessing more proliferation resistant than traditional reprocessing.”

“In order to have pure plutonium separated, additional process steps are required either at the pyroprocessing plant or at a separate installation, which would be found by the IAEA. If such process steps are made it would take 1-3 weeks to turn the material to plutonium metal. However, before that the process steps need to be developed and constructed, but the bottom line is that by having the envisioned uranium/plutonium metal, a proliferator is substantially closer to pure plutonium metal.” …..


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