Exposing the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Chain Commission’s spin about FURTHER PROCESSING OF (uranium and thorium)

Dennis Matthews, 8 May 15  NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE (sic) ROYAL COMMISSION ISSUES PAPER TWO

FURTHER PROCESSING OF (uranium and thorium) MINERALS AND MANUFACTURE OF MATERIALS CONTAINING RADIOACTIVE AND NUCLEAR SUBSTANCES

Two things stand out in this the second Issues Paper for the Scarce Nuclear Industry Commission.

One is the consistent use of pro-nuclear jargon/spin, the other is the frequency with which statements are accompanied by provisos.

The pro-nuclear jargon/spin started right from the beginning of this whole process with the name of the Commission. Instead of using the neutral, straight forward term “nuclear industry”, the value –laden, scientifically incorrect, misleading phrase “nuclear fuel cycle” was chosen. This was accompanied by similarly misleading, nuclear industry, feel-good phrases such as “value adding” and “enrichment”.

The most obvious nuclear industry ploy used in this discussion paper is to refer to “radiation” rather than “ionising radiation”. This is unscientific, misleading and potentially confusing to many readers who are familiar with the fact that “radiation” includes microwaves, radiowaves, visible light, and infrared radiation, none of which is ionising.

This issues paper makes frequent use of vague terms such as “may allow”, “ongoing”, “possible”, “currently being developed”, “may be”, “could be influenced”, “being developed”, and “emerging technologies”. These are hardly encouraging or appropriate terms for producing serious policy, especially on such a contentious issue as expanding the nuclear industry in SA.

This issues paper is in four sections: Further Processing, Manufacture, Viability, and Risks and Opportunities.

FURTHER PROCESSING

This includes conversion, “enrichment”, fuel fabrication, and “reprocessing”.

Conversion is the chemical treatment of the solid uranium compound produced at a uranium mine (“yellowcake”, which is a khaki-coloured oxide of uranium) to a gaseous uranium compound. Conversion uses the extremely corrosive and toxic hydrofluoric acid and the product is not only  a radioactive gas but also highly toxic.

This gaseous uranium compound is needed in order to separate U-235 from U-238. This process is called “enrichment” by the nuclear industry. Although the process increases the concentration of U-235 by a factor of 5 , U-235 makes up only 1/30th of the gaseous uranium compound.

The “enriched” gaseous uranium compound must then be converted back to a solid oxide of uranium in order to be used to construct fuel rods for a nuclear reactor.

In the nuclear reactor, the U-235 undergoes nuclear fission which generates heat and fission products in the form of a variety of radioactive isotopes that are orders of magnitude more radioactive than the nuclear fuel. These waste products inhibit the functioning of the nuclear fuel to the extent that this “spent fuel” is only 10% utilised before it must be removed and replaced by fresh fuel. The fuel is not so much “spent” as “contaminated” by the fission products.

According to the issues paper, reprocessing of this highly contaminated fuel “can occur”. In fact, it is an essential part of the operation of a nuclear power station. It is not a question of “can” but “must”.

The process by which the contaminants are removed from the contaminated fuel is called “re-processing”. In most other chemical industries, it would be called purification. The contaminated solid fuel is dissolved with acid, the contaminants are removed, and the purified uranium containing liquid must then go back to the conversion stage so that the concentration of U-235 can be brought back up to the required level in order for it to be made into fuel, which after being only 10% used must again be re-purified. This is what the nuclear industry spin-doctors call “re-cycling”.

Of the original batch of U-235, after ten such conversion-“enrichment”-fabrication-use-purification-conversion cycles there is still some 40% of the original U-235 un-used.. It’s like making steel, where 90% of the original iron ends up as slag.

It is this highly inefficient process that is the basis for the term “nuclear fuel cycle”. Spin has been used by the nuclear industry to turn gross inefficiency into a virtue.

This “nuclear fuel cycle” does not include mining, milling and processing of uranium ore or nuclear waste disposal, which, as shown by the nuclear industry literature, are one-way inputs/outputs of the cycle.

A nuclear fuel cycle enquiry which includes mining, milling and processing of uranium ore or nuclear waste disposal is therefore, from its very start, nonsense.

The issues paper refers to thorium fuelled nuclear reactors, which is says are “under development”. It correctly concludes, “there are no thorium-based reactor designs being actively promoted for broad commercial use.”

A 2015 report from the French Institute of Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) goes even further. Of half a dozen so-called “Generation IV” type nuclear reactors, the report says only one type has any chance of being commercially viable in the foreseeable future and that this type has not been shown to be any safer than Generation III reactors which are the intended successors to the 1960s and 1970’s Generation II reactors.

 

  1. MANUFACTURE

To say that medical and scientific radioactively decaying isotopes are “developed” from stable elements is sheer spin. These radioactive isotopes are produced by either bombardment with neutrons in a nuclear reactor or with high energy particles in a particle accelerator (such as a synchrotron) or formed by the radioactive decay of these isotopes.

  • The issues paper claims that such radioactive isotopes are in increasing demand but gives no evidence to support its claim.
  • Like the nuclear industry the issues paper even avoids using the word radioactive preferring instead the much friendlier sounding term “radioisotope” or simply “isotope”. Given there are a large number of isotopes that are not radioactive then using the term isotope instead of radioactive isotope is sloppy science.
  • Further evidence of sloppy science is the statement that the hydrogen isotope H-2 (deuterium) is radioactive. The only radioactive isotope of hydrogen is H-3 (tritium).
  • Listing naturally occurring radioactive isotopes such as C-14 in a section on manufactured radioactive isotopes is either sloppy science or spin designed to give credibility to the nuclear industry.
  • The use of radioactive isotopes in smoke alarms is also misleading. There are alternative smoke alarms that use light rather ionising radiation. These photoelectric smoke alarms have been supported by the fire fighting industry as being more effective.

Radioactive smoke alarms contain a radioactive isotope of americium which emits alpha-particle ionising radiation that is dangerous only when ingested or inhaled. In the case of a fire in premises containing radioactive fire alarms the alarms are incinerated, the americium is converted to a fine radioactive dust which poses a hazard to fire fighters and demolition workers. These alarms are routinely disposed of along with household waste and pose an environmental risk far into the future.

 

  1. VIABILITY

f the countries listed as having “commercial” uranium oxide conversion plants only one (Canada) is not a nuclear weapons country. The rest (USA, Russia, France, China, UK) all have long established nuclear weapons programmes which preceded their nuclear power programmes.

Similarly, all of the countries listed (China, France, Russia, USA) as having major “commercial” plants for increasing the concentration of fissile U-235 (“enrichment”) are nuclear weapons countries.

  • The issues paper concludes that in the short term there is excess conversion, U-235 concentrating, and fuel fabrication capacity but that in the medium term there “may be” a need to increase capacity. This latter conclusion is based on a very optimistic view of the nuclear industry which appears to be at odds with current trends.
  • The issues paper states that South Australia’s decision to establish conversion, concentrating and fabrication facilities “could” be influenced by developments in “prospective” technologies. But then, the same applies to everywhere else in the world and hence there iss no inherent commercial advantage to South Australia..
  • The issues paper states that 13% of Australia’s radioactive isotope exports are to countries “such as New Zealand and the South East Asian region”. It says nothing about the remaining 87% of exports.
  • It is claimed that new radioactive pharmaceuticals “are being developed” by ANSTO for cancer treatment.

RISKS AND OPPORTUNITIES

In reference to the high level radioactive wastes from fuel purification (“spent fuel reprocessing”) the issues paper claims that the extent of these wastes “may” be reduced through the use of “emerging technologies”.

In reference to hydrofluoric acid used during conversion, it says that it “can create health implications if inhaled or ingested.” No mention is made of the fact that these health implications include death or that it can cause blindness and tissue damage that is not immediately apparent thus delaying treatment and exacerbating the damage.

In relation to the dangers of ionising radiation the issues paper refers simply to “radiation” thereby lumping it together with electromagnetic radiation including such innocuous things as visible light and radio waves.

 

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