Archive for the ‘reprocessing’ Category

No justification for reprocessing plutonium

October 30, 2017

Forty years later, Japan’s breeder program, the original justification for its reprocessing program, is virtually dead.  

Forty years of impasse: The United States, Japan, and the plutonium problem http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2017.1364007   Masafumi Takubo &Frank von Hippel23 Aug 2017, Recently, records have been published from the internal discussions in the Carter administration (1977–80) on the feasibility of convincing Japan to halt its plutonium-separation program as the United States was in the process of doing domestically. Japan was deeply committed to its program, however, and President Carter was not willing to escalate to a point where the alliance relationship could be threatened. Forty years later, the economic, environmental, and nonproliferation arguments against Japan’s program have only been strengthened while Japan’s concern about being dependent on imports of uranium appears vastly overblown. Nevertheless, Japan’s example, as the only non-weapon state that still separates plutonium, continues to legitimize the launch of similar programs in other countries, some of which may be interested in obtaining a nuclear weapon option.

In June 2017, the National Security Archive, a nonprofit center in Washington, DC, posted four-decade-old documents from the Carter administration’s internal debate over how to best persuade Japan to defer its ambitious program to obtain separated plutonium by chemical reprocessing of spent power reactor fuel.11. See: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb597-Japanese-Plutonium-Overhang/.View all notes

Foreign civilian plutonium programs had become a high-level political issue in the United States after India used plutonium, nominally separated to provide startup fuel for a breeder reactor program in its first nuclear weapon test in 1974 (Perkovich 1999Perkovich, G. 1999India’s Nuclear BombOakland, CAUniversity of California Press. [Google Scholar]). The United States reversed its policy of encouraging the development of plutonium breeder reactors worldwide to avoid an anticipated shortage of uranium. The breeder reactors would convert abundant non-chain-reacting uranium 238 into chain-reacting plutonium and then use the plutonium as fuel, while conventional reactors are fueled primarily by chain-reacting uranium 235, which makes up only 0.7 percent of natural uranium.

The Ford administration (1974–77) blocked France’s plan to sell spent fuel reprocessing plants to South Korea and Pakistan but did not succeed in persuading Japan to abandon its nearly complete Tokai pilot reprocessing plant. Therefore, when the Carter administration took office in January 1977, it inherited the difficult plutonium discussion with Japan.

The earliest document in the newly released trove is a 19-page memo dated 24 January 1977, in which career State Department official Louis Nosenzo briefs the incoming Carter political appointees on the issue.22. See: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=3859705-Document-01-Louis-Nozenzo-Bureau-of-Political.View all notes His arguments are strikingly similar to those being made some 40 years later by United States and international nongovernmental organizations such as the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM 2015IPFM. 2015Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs. See:http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr14.pdf. [Google Scholar]) and by US government officials – most recently, members of the Obama administration.33. Japan Times, “U.S. would back a rethink of Japan’s plutonium recycling program: White House,” 21 May 2016.View all notes

These arguments are, in brief, that the separation and use of plutonium as a fuel is not economically competitive with simply storing the spent fuel until its radioactive heat generation has declined and a deep underground repository has been constructed for its final disposal. In this “once-through” fuel cycle, the plutonium remains mixed with the radioactive fission products in the intact spent fuel and therefore is relatively inaccessible for use in weapons.

The earliest document in the newly released trove is a 19-page memo dated 24 January 1977, in which career State Department official Louis Nosenzo briefs the incoming Carter political appointees on the issue.22. See: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=3859705-Document-01-Louis-Nozenzo-Bureau-of-Political.View all notes His arguments are strikingly similar to those being made some 40 years later by United States and international nongovernmental organizations such as the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM 2015IPFM. 2015Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs. See:http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr14.pdf. [Google Scholar]) and by US government officials – most recently, members of the Obama administration.33. Japan Times, “U.S. would back a rethink of Japan’s plutonium recycling program: White House,” 21 May 2016.View all notes

These arguments are, in brief, that the separation and use of plutonium as a fuel is not economically competitive with simply storing the spent fuel until its radioactive heat generation has declined and a deep underground repository has been constructed for its final disposal. In this “once-through” fuel cycle, the plutonium remains mixed with the radioactive fission products in the intact spent fuel and therefore is relatively inaccessible for use in weapons.

Presumably with tongue in cheek, he opined that “[s]pace limitations are a real problem only for countries like Luxemburg.” (Luxemburg, about equal in area to St. Louis, Missouri, did not and still does not have a nuclear program.) Subsequently, it was pointed out that the volume of an underground repository for highly radioactive waste is determined not by the volume of the waste but by its heat output; the waste has to be spread out to limit the temperature increase of the surrounding buffer clay and rock (IPFM 2015IPFM. 2015Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs. See:http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr14.pdf. [Google Scholar]). Reprocessing waste would contain all the heat-generating fission products in the original spent fuel, and the heat generated by the plutonium in one ton of spent MOX fuel would be about the same as the heat generated by the plutonium in the approximately seven tons of spent low-enriched uranium fuel from which the plutonium used to manufacture the fresh MOX fuel had been recovered.

With regard to the issue of the need for plutonium to provide startup fuel for breeder reactors, Nosenzo noted that “experimental breeders currently utilize uranium [highly enriched in the chain-reacting isotope uranium 235] rather than plutonium for start-up and this will probably also be true of commercial breeder start-up operations.”44. This was not entirely correct. Although the United States, Russian, and Chinese experimental and prototype breeder reactors started up with enriched uranium fuel and all breeder reactors could have been, plutonium fuel was used to start up the prototypes in France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. See International Fuel Cycle Evaluation, Fast Breeders(IAEA 1980IAEA. 1980International Fuel Cycle Evaluation, Fast Breeders. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency. [Google Scholar]) Table III. M. Ragheb, “Fermi I Fuel Meltdown Incident” (2014). Available at http://mragheb.com/NPRE%20457%20CSE%20462%20Safety%20Analysis%20of%20Nuclear%20Reactor%20Systems/Fermi%20I%20Fuel%20Meltdown%20Incident.pdf.View all notes

“[T]here is a strong need for a US position paper presenting the above rationale with supporting analysis,” Nosenzo wrote. “This would be of value, for example, with other governments in the nuclear suppliers context and more generally … for use by sympathetic foreign ministries attempting to cope effectively with their ministries of energy, of technology and of economics.”

The last point reflected the reality that the promotion of breeder reactors was central to the plans of powerful trade ministries around the world, including Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), and that foreign ministries sometimes use independent analyses to push back against positions of other ministries that seem extreme to them. A few years ago, an official of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, for example, privately described the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, the driving force behind South Korea’s demand for the same “right” to reprocess as Japan, as “our Taliban.”

Japan planned to start operation of its Tokai reprocessing plant later that spring, and it appeared clear to Nosenzo that it would be impossible to prevent the operation of the almost completed plant. Another memo cited Prime Minister Fukuda as publicly calling reprocessing a matter of “life and death” for Japan.55. See: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=3859730-Document-05-Memorandum-from-Ambassador-at-Large.View all notes Japan’s government had committed itself to achieving what Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission from 1961–71, had relentlessly promoted as a “plutonium economy,” in which the world would be powered by the element he had codiscovered.

Why would the Fukuda administration have seen the separation and use of plutonium as so critical? We believe that the Prime Minister had been convinced by Japan’s plutonium advocates that the country’s dependence on imported uranium would create an economic vulnerability such as the country had experienced during the 1973 Arab oil embargo, still a recent and painful memory. Indeed, according to a popular view in Japan, further back, in 1941, it was a US embargo on oil exports to Japan that had triggered Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The plutonium advocates argued that breeder reactors would eliminate resource-poor Japan’s vulnerability to a uranium cutoff by turning already imported uranium into a virtually inexhaustible supply of plutonium fuel for its reactors.

During the past 40 years, however, uranium has been abundant, cheap, and available from a variety of countries. Furthermore, as some foreign observers have suggested, if Japan was really concerned about possible disruptions of supply, it could have acquired a 50-year strategic reserve of uranium at a much lower cost than its plutonium program (Leventhal and Dolley 1994Leventhal, P., and S. Dolley1994. “A Japanese Strategic Uranium Reserve: A Safe and Economic Alternative to Plutonium.” Science & Global Security 5: 131. doi:10.1080/08929889408426412.[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]). Indeed, because of the low cost of uranium, globally, utilities have accumulated an inventory sufficient for about seven years. Although it took several years for Congress to accept the Carter administration’s proposal to end the US reprocessing and breeder reactor development programs, Congress did support the administration’s effort to discourage plutonium programs abroad. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978 required that nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries be renegotiated so that any spent fuel that had either originally been produced in the United States or had been irradiated in a reactor containing components or design information subject to US export controls could not be reprocessed without prior consent from the US government. Internally, however, the administration was divided over whether the United States could force its allies to accept such US control over their nuclear programs.

One of the final memos in the National Security Archives file, written in May 1980, toward the end of the Carter administration by Jerry Oplinger, a staffer on the National Security Council, criticized a proposal by Gerard Smith, President Carter’s ambassador at large for nuclear nonproliferation. Smith proposed that the administration provide blanket advance consent for spent fuel reprocessing in Western Europe and Japan.77. See: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/dc.html?doc=3859749-Document-22-Jerry-Oplinger-to-Leon-Billings-and.View all notes Oplinger characterized Smith’s proposal as “surrender” and argued that, even though the danger of further proliferation in Europe or by Japan was low, their examples could be used by other countries as a justification for launching their own plutonium programs.

The Carter administration did not surrender to the Japanese and the West European reprocessing lobbies but, in 1988, in exchange for added requirements for safeguards and physical protection of plutonium, the Reagan administration signed a renegotiated US–Japan agreement on nuclear cooperation with full, advance, programmatic consent to reprocessing by Japan for 30 years. In the original 1968 agreement, the United States had been given the right to review each Japanese shipment of spent fuel to the British and French reprocessing plants on a case-by-case basis and to make a joint determination on reprocessing in Japan. This right had allowed the United States to question whether Japan needed more separated plutonium. As a result of the 1988 agreement, by the time of the 2011 Fukushima accident, Japan had built up a stock of some 44 tons of separated plutonium, an amount sufficient for more than 5000 Nagasaki-type bombs (Japan Atomic Energy Commission 2012Japan Atomic Energy Commission. 2012. “The Current Situation of Plutonium Management in Japan,” September 11. [Google Scholar]), and the largest amount of MOX fuel it had loaded in a single year (2010) contained about one ton of plutonium (IPFM 2015IPFM. 2015Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs. See:http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr14.pdf. [Google Scholar]).

The initial period of the 1988 agreement will expire in 2018, after which either party may terminate it by giving six months written notice. This provides an opportunity for the US government to reraise the issue of reprocessing with Japan.

Unlike the 1968 agreement with Japan, the 1958 US–EURATOM agreement did not have a requirement of prior US consent for reprocessing of European spent fuel in West Europe. The Europeans refused to renegotiate this agreement, and, starting with President Carter, successive US presidents extended the US–EURATOM agreement by executive order year by year (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 1994Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Frans Berkhout and William Walker, “Atlantic Impasse,” September-October 1994. [Google Scholar]). Finally, in 1995, the Clinton administration negotiated language in a new agreement that the European reprocessors accepted as a commitment to noninterference (Behrens and Donnelly 1996Behrens, C. E., and W. H.Donnelly1996. “EURATOM and the United States: Renewing the Agreement for Nuclear Cooperation,” Congressional Research Service, April 26. Available at:https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metacrs312/m1/1/high_res_d/IB96001_1996Apr26.html; andhttp://ec.europa.eu/world/agreements/prepareCreateTreatiesWorkspace/treatiesGeneralData.do?step=0&redirect=true&treatyId=304 [Google Scholar]). By that time, the nonnuclear weapon states in Europe – notably Germany and Italy – had lost interest in breeder reactors and the only reprocessing plants listed in the agreement were those of United Kingdom and France. Reprocessing proponents in Japan often say that Japan is the only non-weapon state trusted by the international community to reprocess. In reality, Japan is the only non-weapon state that has not abandoned reprocessing because of its poor economics.

As Oplinger pointed out, Japan played a central role in sustaining large-scale reprocessing in Europe as well as at home. In addition to planning to build their own large reprocessing plant, Japan’s nuclear utilities provided capital, in the form of prepaid reprocessing contracts, for building large new merchant reprocessing plants in France and the United Kingdom. France also played a leading role in promoting reprocessing and in designing Japan’s reprocessing plant.

Oplinger insisted that the planned reprocessing programs in Europe and Japan would produce huge excesses of separated plutonium beyond the requirements of planned breeder programs: “Any one of these three projected plants would more than swamp the projected plutonium needs of all the breeder R&D programs in the world. Three of them would produce a vast surplus … amounting to several hundred tons by the year 2000.”

He attached a graph projecting that by the year 2000, the three plants would produce a surplus of 370 tons of separated plutonium beyond the requirements of breeder research and development. The actual stock of separated civilian plutonium in Europe and Japan in 2000 was huge – using the IAEA’s metric of 8 kilograms per bomb, enough for 20,000 Nagasaki bombs – but about half the amount projected in Oplinger’s memo (IPFM 2015IPFM. 2015Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs. See:http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr14.pdf. [Google Scholar]). This was due in part to operating problems with the UK reprocessing plant and delays in the operation of Japan’s large reprocessing plant. On the demand side, breeder use was much less than had been projected, but, in an attempt to deal with the surplus stocks, quite a bit of plutonium was fabricated into MOX and irradiated in Europe’s conventional reactors.

Forty years later, Japan’s breeder program, the original justification for its reprocessing program, is virtually dead.  Japan officially abandoned its Monju prototype breeder reactor in 2016 after two decades of failed efforts to restore it to operation after a 1995 leak of its sodium secondary coolant and a resulting fire. Japan’s government now talks of joining France in building a new Advanced Sodium Technological Reactor for Industrial Demonstration (ASTRID) in France, and France’s nuclear establishment has welcomed the idea of Japan sharing the cost.8

8. See: https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20161022/p2a/00m/0na/005000c.View all notes The mission for ASTRID-type fast-neutron reactors would be to fission the plutonium and other long-lived transuranic elements in spent low-enriched uranium fuel and MOX fuel, for which Japan will have to build a new reprocessing plant. According to France’s 2006 radioactive waste law, ASTRID was supposed to be commissioned by the end of 2020.99. See: http://www.andra.fr/download/andra-international-en/document/editions/305va.pdf, Article 3.1.View all notes Its budget has been secured only for the design period extending to 2019, however. In an October 2016 briefing in Tokyo, the manager of the ASTRID program showed the project’s schedule with a “consolidation phase” beginning in 2020 (Devictor 2016Devictor, N.2016. “ASTRID: Expectations to Japanese Entities’ Participation.” Nuclear Energy Division, French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, TokyoOctober 27. Available at:http://www.meti.go.jp/committee/kenkyukai/energy/fr/pdf/002_02_02.pdf [Google Scholar]). The next day, the official in charge of nuclear issues at France’s embassy in Tokyo stated that ASTRID would not start up before 2033 (Félix 2016Félix, S. 2016. Interview with Mainichi Shimbun, October27in Japanese. Available at:http://mainichi.jp/articles/20161027/ddm/008/040/036000c [Google Scholar]). Thus, in 10 years, the schedule had slipped by 13 years. It has been obvious for four decades that breeder reactors and plutonium use as a reactor fuel will be uneconomic. The latest estimate of the total project cost for Japan’s Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, including construction, operation for 40 years, and decommissioning, is now 13.9 trillion yen ($125 billion), with the construction cost alone reaching 2.95 trillion yen ($27 billion), including 0.75 trillion yen for upgrades due to new safety regulations introduced after the Fukushima accident. The total project cost of the MOX fuel fabrication facility, including some 42 years of operation and decommissioning, is now estimated at 2.3 trillion yen ($21 billion) (Nuclear Reprocessing Organization of Japan 2017

Nuclear Reprocessing Organization of Japan, “Concerning the Project Cost of Reprocessing, Etc.” July 2017 (in Japanese). [Google Scholar]). In the United States, after it became clear in 1977 that reprocessing and breeder reactors made no economic sense and could create a proliferation nightmare, it took only about five years for the government and utilities to agree to abandon both programs, despite the fact that industry had spent about $1.3 billion in 2017 dollars on construction of a reprocessing plant in South Carolina (GAO 1984GAO. 1984Status and Commercial Potential of the Barnwell Nuclear Fuel Plant, US General Accounting Office. Available at:http://www.gao.gov/assets/150/141343.pdf, p. 11. [Google Scholar]), and the government had spent $4.2 billion on the Clinch River Demonstration Breeder Reactor project (Peach How could Japan’s government have allowed reprocessing advocates to drive its electric-power utilities to pursue its hugely costly plutonium program over 40 years?

For context, it must be remembered that the United States, a nuclear superpower, has been much more concerned about nuclear proliferation and terrorism than Japan. Tetsuya Endo, a former diplomat involved in the negotiations of the 1988 agreement, depicted the difference in the attitude of the two governments as follows:

Whereas the criterion of the United States, in particular that of the US government … is security (nuclear proliferation is one aspect of it), that of the Japan side is nuclear energy. … [I]t can be summarized as security vs. energy supply and the direction of interests are rather out of alignment. (Endo 2014Endo, T. 2014Formation Process and Issues from Now on of the 1988 Japan-US Nuclear Agreement (Revised Edition). Tokyo: Japan Institute of International Affairs. In Japanese:http://www2.jiia.or.jp/pdf/resarch/H25_US-JPN_nuclear_agreement/140212_US-JPN_nuclear_energy_agreement.pdf [Google Scholar])As we have seen, in the United States, after India’s 1974 nuclear test, both the Ford and Carter administrations considered the spread of reprocessing a very serious security issue. Indeed, a ship that entered a Japanese port on 16 October 1976 to transport spent fuel to the United Kingdom could not leave for nine days due to the Ford administration’s objections (Ibara 1984

Ibara, T. 1984Twilight of the Nuclear Power KingdomTokyoNihon Hyoron Sha. in Japanese. [Google Scholar]). In Japan, the US concerns about nuclear proliferation and terrorism have been generally considered interference in Japan’s energy policy by a country that possesses one of the worlds’ largest nuclear arsenals. Even the eyes of parliament members opposed to reprocessing, antinuclear weapon activists and the media sometimes got blurred by this nationalistic sentiment.

Nevertheless, reprocessing is enormously costly and the willingness of Japan’s government to force its nuclear utilities to accept the cost requires explanation.

One explanation, offered by the Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) (Japan Atomic Energy Commission 2005Japan Atomic Energy Commission. 2005Framework for Nuclear Energy PolicyOctober 11. Available at:http://www.aec.go.jp/jicst/NC/tyoki/tyoki_e.htm. [Google Scholar]), involves the political challenge of negotiating arrangements for storing spent fuel indefinitely at reactor sites. The government and utilities had promised the host communities and prefectures that spent fuel would be removed from the sites. The reprocessing policy provided destinations – first Europe and the Tokai pilot plant, and then the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant. The JAEC argued that, since it would take years to negotiate indefinite onsite storage of spent fuel, nuclear power plants with no place to put spent fuel in the meantime would be shut down one after another, which would result in an economic loss even greater than the cost of reprocessing.

Japan’s nuclear utilities have had to increase on-site storage of spent fuel in any case due to delays in the startup of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, which was originally to start commercial operations in 1997. Indeed, the utilities have adopted the dangerous US practice of dense-packing their spent-fuel cooling pools with used fuel assemblies. Storing spent fuel in dry casks, onsite or offsite, cooled by natural convection of air would be much safer (von Hippel and Schoeppner 2016von Hippel, F., and M.Schoeppner2016. “Reducing the Danger from Fires in Spent Fuel Pools.” Science & Global Security 24: 141173. Available at:http://scienceandglobalsecurity.org/archive/sgs24vonhippel.pdf. doi:10.1080/08929882.2016.1235382.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). In the United States, spent fuel is transferred to onsite dry cask storage after the dense-packed pools become completely full. It’s better to make this transfer as soon as the spent fuel gets cool enough. Such a shift to a policy of accelerated dry cask storage would require stronger nuclear safety regulation in both countries (Lyman, Schoeppner, and von Hippel 2017Lyman, E.M. Schoeppner, and F. von Hippel2017. “Nuclear Safety Regulation in the post-Fukushima Era.” Science 356: 808809. doi:10.1126/science.aal4890.[Crossref][PubMed][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]

Second, there is the bureaucratic explanation. The bureaucracy has more power over policy in Japan than in the United States. In Japan, when a new prime minister is elected in the Diet, only the ministers change whereas, in the United States with a two-party system, policy making is shared by Congress and the executive branch to a greater extent, and a new president routinely replaces more than 4000 officials at the top of the bureaucracy.1010. See: “Help Wanted: 4,000 Presidential Appointees” (Center for Presidential Transition, 16 March 2016) at: http://presidentialtransition.org/blog/posts/160316_help-wanted-4000-appointees.php.View all notes (This works both for the better and worse as can be observed in the current US administration.) Also, in Japan, unlike the United States, the bureaucracy is closed. There are virtually no mixed careers, with people working both inside and outside the bureaucracy (Tanaka 2009Tanaka, H. 2009. “The Civil Service System and Governance in Japan.” Available at:http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/apcity/unpan039129.pdf. [Google Scholar]).

Third, the provision of electric power has been a heavily regulated regional monopoly in Japan. Utilities therefore have been able to pass the extra costs of reprocessing on to consumers without eroding their own profits. This monopoly structure also has given utilities enormous power both locally and nationally, making it possible for them to influence both election results and the policy-making process. Thus, even if the original reprocessing policy was made by bureaucrats, it is now very difficult to change because of this complicated web of influence.

Japan has been gradually shifting toward deregulation, especially since the Fukushima accident, but a law has been passed to protect reprocessing by requiring the utilities to pay in advance, at the time of irradiation, for reprocessing the spent fuel and fabricating the recovered plutonium into MOX fuel (Suzuki and Takubo 2016Suzuki, T., and M. Takubo2016. “Japan’s New Law on Funding Plutonium Reprocessing,” May 26. Available at:http://fissilematerials.org/blog/2016/05/japans_new_law_on_funding.html. [Google Scholar]). The fact that nuclear utilities didn’t fight openly against this law, which will make them pay extra costs in the deregulated market, suggests that they expect the government to come up with a system of spreading the cost to consumers purchasing electricity generated by nonnuclear power producers, for example with a charge for electricity transmission and distribution, which will continue to be regulated.

Plutonium separation programs also persist in France, India, and Russia. China, too, has had a reprocessing policy for decades, although a small industrial reprocessing plant is only at the site-preparation stage and a site has not yet been found for a proposed large reprocessing plant that is to be bought from France. Central bureaucracies have great power in these countries, as they do in Japan. France’s government-owned utility has made clear that, where it has the choice – as it has had in the United Kingdom, whose nuclear power plants it also operates – it will opt out of reprocessing. This is one of the reasons why reprocessing will end in the United Kingdom over the next few years as the preexisting contracts are fulfilled (IPFM 2015

IPFM. 2015Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs. See:http://fissilematerials.org/library/rr14.pdf. [Google Scholar]).

A final explanation put forward from time to time for the persistence of reprocessing in Japan is that Japan’s security establishment wants to keep open a nuclear weapon option. There already are about 10 tons of separated plutonium in Japan, however (with an additional 37 tons of Japanese plutonium in France and the United Kingdom), and the design capacity of the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant to separate eight tons of plutonium, enough to make 1000 nuclear warheads per year, is far greater than Japan could possibly need for a nuclear weapon option. Also, Japan already has a centrifuge enrichment plant much larger than that planned by Iran. Iran’s program precipitated an international crisis because of proliferation concerns. Japan’s plant, like Iran’s, is designed to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants, but the cascades could be quickly reorganized to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for 10 bombs per year from natural uranium. Japan plans to expand this enrichment capacity more than 10-fold.1111. For Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited’s current and planned enrichment capacities, see: http://www.jnfl.co.jp/en/business/uran/. It takes about 5000 separative work units (SWUs) to produce enough HEU for a first-generation nuclear weapon – defined by the IAEA to be highly enriched uranium (usually assumed to be 90 percent enriched in U-235) containing 25 kilograms of U-235.View all notes It is therefore hard to imagine that the hugely costly Rokkasho reprocessing project is continuing because security officials are secretly pushing for it.

The idea that Japan is maintaining a nuclear weapon option has negative effects for Japan’s security, however, raising suspicions among its neighbors and legitimizing arguments in South Korea that it should acquire its own nuclear weapon option. It also undermines nuclear disarmament. According to the New York Times, when President Obama considered adopting a no-first-use policy before leaving office, Secretary of State John Kerry “argued that Japan would be unnerved by any diminution of the American nuclear umbrella, and perhaps be tempted to obtain their own weapon” (Sanger and Broad 2016Sanger, D., and W. Broad2016. “Obama Unlikely to Vow No First Use of Nuclear Weapons.” New York TimesSeptember 5. Available at:https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/science/obama-unlikely-to-vow-no-first-use-of-nuclear-weapons.html [Google Scholar]). It’s about time for both the security officials and antinuclear weapon movements to examine this concern more seriously.

Given the terrible economics of reprocessing, its end in Japan and France should only be a matter of time. As the 40-year-long impasse over Japan’s program demonstrates, however, the inevitable can take a very long time, while the costs and dangers continue to accumulate. The world has been fortunate that the stubborn refusals of Japan and France to abandon their failing reprocessing programs have not resulted in a proliferation of plutonium programs, or the theft and use of their plutonium by terrorists. The South Korean election of President Moon Jae-in – who holds antinuclear-power views – may result in a decrease in pressure from Seoul for the “right” to reprocess.

The combined effects of the “invisible hand” of economics and US policy therefore have thus far been remarkably successful in blocking the spread of reprocessing to non-weapon states other than Japan. China’s growing influence in the international nuclear-energy industry and its planned reprocessing program, including the construction of a large French-designed reprocessing plant, could soon, however, pose a new challenge to this nonproliferation success story. Decisions by France and Japan to take their completely failed reprocessing programs off costly government-provided life support might convince China to rethink its policy.

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Pyroprocessing the nuclear “wonder fuel” that created even more waste problems

August 21, 2017

Since the project began 17 years ago, 15% of the waste has been processed, an average of one-fourth of a metric ton per year. That’s 20 times slower than originally expected, a pace that would stretch the work into the next century — long past the 2035 deadline.

Lyman said he was determined to explore the Idaho program in light of increasing interest in the scientific and regulatory communities in advanced nuclear reactors — including breeder reactors — and what he believed was misleading information by advocates.

The Idaho National Lab created a ‘wonder fuel.’ Now, it’s radioactive waste that won’t go away, http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-na-idaho-nuclear-waste-2017-story.html, Ralph VartabedianContact Reporter, 13 Aug 17  In the early days of atomic energy, the federal government powered up an experimental reactor in Idaho with an ambitious goal: create a “wonder fuel” for the nation.

The reactor was one of the nation’s first “breeder” reactors — designed to make its own new plutonium fuel while it generated electricity, solving what scientists at the time thought was a looming shortage of uranium for power plants and nuclear weapons.

It went into operation in 1964 and kept the lights burning at the sprawling national laboratory for three decades.

But enthusiasm eventually waned for the breeder reactor program owing to safety concerns, high costs and an adequate supply of uranium. Today, its only legacy is 26 metric tons of highly radioactive waste. What to do with that spent fuel is causing the federal government deepening political, technical, legal and financial headaches.

The reactor was shut down in 1994. Under a legal settlement with Idaho regulators the next year, the Department of Energy pledged to have the waste treated and ready to transport out of the state by 2035.

The chances of that happening now appear slim. A special treatment plant is having so many problems and delays that it could take many decades past the deadline to finish the job.

“The process doesn’t work,” said Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has documented the problems in a new report. “It turned out to be harder to execute and less reliable than they promised.”

Many of the cleanup efforts, like the one in Idaho, are years or even decades behind schedule, reflecting practices that were far too optimistic when it came to technology, costs and management know-how.

Jim Owendoff, the acting chief of the Energy Department’s environmental management program, recently ordered a 45-day review of the entire $6-billion-a-year radiation cleanup effort. “What I am looking at is how we can be more timely in our decision-making,” he said in a department newsletter.

The Idaho reactor, located at the 890-square-mile Idaho National Laboratory, was designed to produce electricity while it “breeds” new fuel by allowing fast-moving neutrons to convert non-fissionable uranium into fissionable plutonium.

But the complexity of breeder reactors led to safety problems.

Only one breeder reactor ever went into commercial operation in the U.S. — the Enrico Fermi I near Detroit, which suffered a partial core meltdown in 1966. Construction of a breeder reactor on the Clinch River in Tennessee was stopped in 1983.

A reactor using similar technology above the San Fernando Valley experienced fuel core damage in 1959 that is believed to have released radioactive iodine into the air.

Ultimately, the nation never faced a shortage of uranium fuel, and now the Energy Department is spending billions of dollars to manage its surplus plutonium. Unlike uranium, the “wonder fuel,” as the lab called it, was bonded to sodium to improve heat transfer inside the reactor.

The sodium has presented an unusual waste problem.

Sodium is a highly reactive element that can become explosive when it comes in contact with water and is potentially too unstable to put in any future underground dump — such as the one proposed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

To remove the bonded sodium, the government used a complex process, known as pyroprocessing, which was developed to also separate plutonium from the spent fuel. The spent fuel parts from the reactor are placed in a chemical bath and subjected to an electrical current, which draws off the sodium onto another material. The process is similar to electroplating a kitchen faucet.

Back in 2000, the project managers estimated in an environmental report that they could treat 5 metric tons annually and complete the job in six years.

But privately, the department estimated that it would take more than twice that long, according to internal documents that Lyman obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Even that was unrealistic, because it assumed that the treatment plant could work around the clock every day of the year, without down time for maintenance or allowance for breakdowns. Lyman found that during one year — 2012 — no waste at all was processed.

Since the project began 17 years ago, 15% of the waste has been processed, an average of one-fourth of a metric ton per year. That’s 20 times slower than originally expected, a pace that would stretch the work into the next century — long past the 2035 deadline.

The problem with the breeder reactor waste is just one of many environmental issues at the lab, located on a high desert plateau near Idaho Falls. The federal government gifted the Idaho lab with additional radioactive waste for decades.

After the highly contaminated Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver was shut down in 1993, the waste was shipped to Idaho. The Navy has been sending in its spent fuel from nuclear-powered ships.

The lab is dealing with tons of waste containing artificial elements, so-called transuranic waste. The Energy Department promised to move an average of 2,000 cubic meters to a special dump in New Mexico, but it has missed that goal for several years, because of an underground explosion at the dump. The Energy Department declined to answer specific questions about the breeder waste cleanup, citing the sensitivity of nuclear technology. It blamed the slow pace of cleanup on inadequate funding but said it was still trying to meet the deadline.

“When the implementation plan for the treatment of the [spent fuel] was developed in 2000, there was very limited nuclear energy research and development being performed in the United States,” a department spokesperson said in a statement.

“The funding for this program has been limited in favor of other research and development activities. The Department remains strongly committed to the treatment of this fuel in time to meet its commitments to the State of Idaho.”

Susan Burke, who monitors the cleanup at the laboratory for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, said the state will continue to demand that the waste be ready for shipment out of Idaho by 2035.

“The Energy Department is doing the best it can, but our expectation is that they will have to meet the settlement agreement,” she said.

Idaho watchdogs are skeptical.

“There is some bad faith here on the part of the Energy Department,” said Beatrice Brailsford, nuclear program director at the Snake River Alliance, a group that monitors the lab. “The department is misleading the public. Not much information has been given out, but enough to be skeptical that the technology works well enough to meet the settlement.”

Lab officials declined to comment.

Lyman said he was determined to explore the Idaho program in light of increasing interest in the scientific and regulatory communities in advanced nuclear reactors — including breeder reactors — and what he believed was misleading information by advocates.

He presented a technical paper about pyroprocessing at a conference held in July by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Lyman said he believes the Energy Department has little chance of success in the program.

“They are just blowing smoke,” he said. “It is a failure and they can’t admit it, because they don’t have a backup plan that would satisfy the state.”

As a method of dealing with radioactive wastes, nuclear reprocessing is a failure

November 21, 2016

Where will SA put lethal nuclear waste?, BD Live, BY NEIL OVERY  SEPTEMBER 20 2016, “……THE UK’s Thorp reprocessing plant, built at great cost in the 1990s, is due to close in 2018, leaving a decommissioning nightmare estimated to take at least 100 years to complete, at huge cost. In Japan, the Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which was due to open in 2008 at a cost of R100bn, has yet to open and has so far cost nearly R400bn over a 26-year period.

France, the only country that reprocesses nuclear fuel on a significant scale, has only been able to do so because of a huge subsidy from the state-owned energy company, EDF.

Despite initial hopes, a large quantity of highly radioactive waste that still needs disposing remains after processing. There are also serious security considerations, because reprocessing high-level waste results in the creation of separated plutonium, which could be stolen and worked into a simple, dirty bomb. The very existence of separated plutonium eases nuclear proliferation.

Nuclear proponents often champion so-called “fast reactors” as a different form of reprocessing that could solve the waste problem. These reactors are designed to burn more plutonium than they breed.

But after 50 years of research and vast expense, not one has operated commercially due to the high costs associated with running them and the fact that they still produce significant quantities of high-level waste that needs disposal. Due to these chronic limitations, most have closed down.

The Kalkar fast reactor in Germany, which cost R100bn to build, never operated and was sold at a huge loss in 1995 and converted into an amusement park.

The US National Academy of Sciences stated in 2008 that the reprocessing of nuclear fuel makes nuclear energy “more expensive, more proliferation-prone and more controversial”……

The US has tried, and after spending the equivalent of R1.4-trillion, has given up. In 2002, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was identified as the site for an underground repository for high-level waste. Despite tens of thousands of pages of scientific research and countless investigations, no agreement has been reached about whether it is safe to store high-level nuclear waste underground. The site was closed in 2011 by the Obama administration.

In Onkalo, Finland, a R75bn underground repository is being built, despite significant opposition.

Similar options are being considered in the UK, France and Sweden.

No one knows, however, if waste can be stored safely underground for tens of thousands of years…….. http://www.bdlive.co.za/opinion/2016/09/20/where-will-sa-put-lethal-nuclear-waste

Nuclear reprocessing at Sellafield: Britain’s national disgrace

September 13, 2016

The National Audit Office (NAO) stated these tanks pose “significant risks to people and the
environment”. One official review published in The Lancet concluded that, at worst, an explosive release from the tanks could kill two million Britons and require the evacuation of an area reaching from Glasgow to Liverpool. These dangerous tanks have also been the subject of repeated complaints from Ireland and Norway who fear their countries could be contaminated if explosions or fires were to occur.

In short, the practice of reprocessing at Sellafield has been and remains a monumental national disgrace.

Especially serious are the ~20 large holding tanks at Sellafield containing thousands of litres of extremely radiotoxic fission products. Discussing these tanks, the previous management consortium Nuclear Management Partners stated in 2012:

“there is a mass of very hazardous [nuclear] waste onsite in storage conditions that are extraordinarily vulnerable, and in facilities that are well past their designated life.”

most of all, we should recognize that nuclear policies, in both weapons and energy, have poorly served the nation.


Sellafield exposed: the nonsense of nuclear fuel reprocessing
 
http://www.theecologist.org/reviews/2988095/sellafield_exposed_the_nonsense_of_nuclear_fuel_reprocessing.html  Ian Fairlie  6th September 2016   Last night’s BBC Panorama programme did a good job at lifting the lid on Britain’s ongoing nuclear disaster that is Sellafield, writes Ian Fairlie. But it failed to expose the full scandal of the UK’s ‘reprocessing’ of spent fuel into 50 tonnes of plutonium, enough to build 20,000 nuclear bombs – while leaving £100s of billions of maintenance and cleanup costs to future generations.

Many readers will have seen the interesting Panorama programme on the poor safety record at Sellafield broadcast on BBC1 last night.

The BBC press release stated this was a “special investigation into the shocking state of Britain’s most hazardous nuclear plant” – and it certainly was.

The most important of several whistleblower revelations was that the previous US managers had been shocked at the state of the plant when they took over its running in 2008.

Although the programme producers are to be congratulated for tackling the subject, it was only 30 minutes long and tells only a fragment of the whole sorry story.

This article tries to give more background information, and importantly, more analysis and explanation. The full story would require several books, and provide exceedingly painful reading.

What is reprocessing for?

First, ‘reprocessing’ is the name given to the physico-chemical treatment of spent nuclear fuel as carried on at Sellafield in Cumbria since the 1950s. This involves the stripping of metal cladding from spent fuel assemblies, dissolving the inner uranium fuel in boiling nitric acid, chemically separating out the uranium and plutonium isotopes and storing the remaining dissolved activation products in large storage tanks.

It is a dirty, dangerous, unhealthy, expensive process which results high radiation doses to the 9,000 workers employed at Sellafield.

The initial rationale for reprocessing in the 1950s to the 1980s was the Cold War demand for fissile material to make nuclear weapons. Several studies at that time stated that reprocessing was a “dominating edifice of policy”.

As a result, strategy-setting, regulatory functions, government reorganisations, and health and safety considerations always had to revolve around it. All Government Departments had to operate within the “rigid framework imposed by the imperative of reprocessing.” Reprocessing decisions were always made at Cabinet level.

The domination of reprocessing even extended to official inquiries. For example, in the late 1970s, the Windscale Inquiry was set up set up to determine a planning application to build the THORP plant. Inter alia, it had to assess the best way to handle spent nuclear fuel. Its 1978 Report strongly defended reprocessing. This was a nonsense even then (see BOX), but it held sway as nuclear defence considerations were paramount.

Environmental consequences

The Sellafield plant is host to several hundred radioactive waste streams and processes which result in large discharges of radioactive liquids to sea and even larger emissions of radioactive gases and aerosols to the atmosphere. Raised levels of childhood leukemias in villages nearby are considered to be linked to the inhalation and ingestion of these radionuclides.

Sellafield, and a similar plant at La Hague, France, continue to be, by some margin, the largest sources of radioactive pollution in the world. For example, the Irish Sea is the most radioactively polluted sea in the world with about half a tonne of plutonium sitting on its seabed from reprocessing.

The collective doses to the world’s population from the long-lived gaseous nuclides C-14, and I-129, and from medium-lived Kr-85 and H-3 (tritium) emitted at Sellafield are huge and are estimated by radiation biologists to cause tens of thousands of early deaths throughout the world.

Another result is the 140 tonnes of unneeded, highly radiotoxic plutonium (Pu) stored on site at a cost of £50 million a year. Pu is fissile and, in the wrong hands, the quantity stored at Sellafield could be made into some 20,000 nuclear warheads: it is a serious proliferation danger.

The sorry history of reprocessing

The history of Sellafield (previously named Windscale) is littered with accidents (some very serious), and hundreds of leaks, spillages, scandals, cover-ups, secret reports, redactions, plant failures, botched management contracts, and examples of gross financial mismanagement.

These have been discussed in scores of critical reports by various Commons Committees, by the NAO, by commissioned consultancies, and by many environmental groups. Also by reports from several European Governments, by the HSE, by RWMAC, and not least by several TV programmes in the 1990s alleging political dirty tricks and manipulation of Government Ministers.

Especially serious are the ~20 large holding tanks at Sellafield containing thousands of litres of extremely radiotoxic fission products. Discussing these tanks, the previous management consortium Nuclear Management Partners stated in 2012:

“there is a mass of very hazardous [nuclear] waste onsite in storage conditions that are extraordinarily vulnerable, and in facilities that are well past their designated life.”

The National Audit Office (NAO) stated these tanks pose “significant risks to people and the environment”. One official review published in The Lancet concluded that, at worst, an explosive release from the tanks could kill two million Britons and require the evacuation of an area reaching from Glasgow to Liverpool. These dangerous tanks have also been the subject of repeated complaints from Ireland and Norway who fear their countries could be contaminated if explosions or fires were to occur.

In short, the practice of reprocessing at Sellafield has been and remains a monumental national disgrace.

The final irony is that, if different spent fuel policies had been chosen nuclear reprocessing would have been quite unnecessary.

The policy horror of the Windscale Inquiry

The Windscale Inquiry, published in 1978, offered an important opportunity to put an end to the UK’s absurd reprocessing policy. So how did it come to conclude that nuclear reprocessing was actually a good way to deal with spent fuel? Largely by using unproved assertions, unsupported assumptions and unwise predictions.

For example, it asserted impending uranium ore shortages and high uranium prices, despite evidence to the contrary even then. It asserted that the mooted glassification of HLW liquid wastes was the best way to proceed despite zero evidence that it would actually work, and despite testimony from Canadian scientists that untreated ceramic spent fuel was a much better waste form than glassified wastes.

Perhaps the most egregious assumption concerned the wisdom of storing spent fuel under water for relatively long periods. Such storage meant that spent fuel, especially Magnox fuel, had to be reprocessed, as the degradation of its cladding rendered it unfit for long term dry storage. Indeed, all or almost all, of the Report’s recommendations on the rationale for reprocessing were later shown to be incorrect.

A major procedural flaw which probably explained much of the nonsense of the report was that Justice Parker, who knew next to nothing about nuclear technology, was advised by two senior advisors from UKAEA and MOD who sat on either side of him throughout the inquiry.

This inquiry is perhaps an extreme example of policy-led ‘science’. It is much preferable of course to have science-led policies. But when it comes to nuclear power, this rarely, if ever, occurs, even today.

After the Windscale Inquiry’s report, the policy of wet storage was maintained – in major part to ensure the continuation of reprocessing, as fissile material for weapons has not existed as a rationale at least since the early 1990s.

MOX Fuel – a solution looking for a problem

The next purported justification for reprocessing was the need to use plutonium as a reactor fuel in mixed oxide (MOX) fuels. However again this was and is a mirage as nuclear companies have repeatedly been unable to manufacture MOX fuel to the exacting standards required for Pu fuels.

In addition, nuclear utilities in Europe and the US have generally refused to use it, unless forced to do so by Government agencies. One reason is economics: MOX fuel costs about four to five times more than ordinary fuel per tonne – and delivers 20% less energy output per tonne.

Another is that spent MOX fuel presents serious problems for utilities. It cannot be reprocessed as it is far too radioactive, and it has to be stored for 15 years rather than five in cooling ponds as it is very hot when it exits reactors. This triples the cost of storing spent fuel. It also causes high radiation exposures to workers – even to managers in distant offices.

All in all, MOX fuel is a bad idea, but even in 2016, such is the dominance of nuclear thinking in Britain, that much evidence to the Parliament’s recent POST report was still suggesting MOX fuel as a solution to deal with the UK’s large unwanted plutonium stocks.

Clearly, there better ways of dealing with spent nuclear fuel. About 90% of nuclear fuel annual arisings around the world are not reprocessed but stored either in ponds or, increasingly, in dry storage facilities. Only the UK and France still carry out commercial reprocessing. This not to say that storage is problem-free or is a final solution but it does not suffer from the massive immediate dangers of reprocessing.

Where are we now with reprocessing?

The incoherence of reprocessing is gradually catching up with nuclear utilities and agencies, as the annual tonnages of reprocessed fuels are slowly declining. Most European utilities (apart from those in France and the UK) stopped ordering their fuels to be reprocessed about a decade ago.

The UK and France still carry out reprocessing, but its days are numbered – at least in Britain. Although all Magnox power stations are now closed, their spent fuels have not yet all been reprocessed. The latest NDA draft Business Plan shows its Post Operational Clean Out (POCO) plan lasting until 2023 with Magnox reprocessing ending in 2020.

With about 3,000 tonnes of Magnox fuel still to be reprocessed it could achieve the 2020 date, if the plant managed to continue operating at the current rate. But the Magnox plant is 50 years old, and could break down at any time (as amply shown in the Panorama programme) so there is no guarantee of meeting the final closure date.

As for AGR fuel, the NDA stated in its draft Business Plan that the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) would close in November 2018, mainly because of the significant costs required to keep it going longer (including new HLW tanks costing £500 million) – costs that NDA said could not be justified.

The NDA stated its Post Operational Clean-Out plans (POCO) and timetable for THORP closure were now mapped out and firm, but whether these will be adhered to is a moot point. The problem is that the UK’s 14 AGR reactors are expected to continue for another ~10 years on average (even although most are past their sell-by dates).

This means at least another ~5,000 tonnes of AGR fuel will need to be catered for. The NDA has stated that this fuel will be stored at Pond 5 at Sellafield by chemically treating its pond water with strong alkalis. Will this work? Again it’s hard to say as no safety case for the long-term storage of AGR fuel in treated ponds has been published.

Of course, the NDA should really be building dry storage facilities like those at Sizewell. (Sizewell, a PWR reactor, stores all its spent PWR fuel initially in ponds then in its dry stores.) However its latest management plan omits any mention of dry storage. This is despite the fact that, back in the 1990s the former company, Scottish Nuclear, had advanced plans for such dry stores for their AGR fuels. BNFL, with Government connivance, ensured these plans were abandoned. It is instructive that no plans for the mooted new UK nuclear power stations include reprocessing their spent fuel.

Perhaps the most eye-watering revelations in the BBC programme were that, although reprocessing was going to cease, the waste containment functions of Sellafield would continue for another 110 years at an estimated cost of up to £162 billion. In other words, the mess of Sellafield will mainly be paid for by future generations. This is utterly unethical and an affront to any notion of sustainability.

Why did Britain reprocess for so long?

Mostly because of institutional mindsets, as the need to reprocess was deeply buried within the core beliefs of officials with nuclear responsibilities. Such institutional biases are powerful and long-lived as the NDA (formerly BNFL) is even now resistant to planning dry stores.

Another reason is that no one agency by itself seemed powerful enough to point out the folly of the matter and get the Government to stop reprocessing. When, in the past, environmental groups, Commons’ Committees and Audit agencies etc opposed reprocessing, the Government fobbed them off with platitudes.

For example, in 1993, during a public consultation over airborne radioactive releases from THORP when over 70,000 individuals called for a wider public inquiry, the Government simply ignored them.

So what lessons can we gain from this shameful debacle?

  • As a nation, we must properly account for the environmental and other external costs of our policies.
  • We must be wary of creating large permanent institutions over which we have little control – or they will come to control us!
  • We must learn to listen to people who have different views from the Government – and that includes putting critics on government committees.
  • And we must try to use science-led policies rather than fitting up false evidence around pre-conceived policies.

But most of all, we should recognize that nuclear policies, in both weapons and energy, have poorly served the nation.


Dr Ian Fairlie is an independent consultant on environmental radioactivity. He formerly was a senior scientist in the Civil Service and worked for the TUC as a researcher between 1975 and 1990.

Busting Australian Senator Sean Edward’s deceptive spin about PRISM nuclear reactors

June 11, 2016

not a single PRISM [ (Power Reactor Innovative Small Module]  has actually been built…. the commercial viability of these technologies is unproven

Crucially, under the plan, Australia would have been taking spent fuel for 4 years before the first PRISM came online, assuming the reactors were built on time.

if borehole technology works as intended, and at the prices hoped for, why would any country pay another to take their waste for $1,370,000 a tonne, when a solution exists that only costs $216,000 a tonne, less than one sixth of the price?

The impossible dream Free electricity sounds too good to be true. It is. A plan to produce free electricity for South Australia by embracing nuclear waste sounds like a wonderful idea. But it won’t work.  THE AUSTRALIA INSTITUTE Dan Gilchrist February 2016

“……NEW TECHNOLOGY  This comprehensively researched submission asserts that a transformative opportunity is to be found in pairing established, mature practices with cuspof-commercialisation technologies to provide an innovative model of service to the global community. (emphasis added) Edwards’ submission to the Royal Commission

Two elements of the plan – transport of waste, and temporary storage in the dry cask facility – are indeed mature. There is a high degree of certainty that these technologies will perform as expected, for the prices expected.
 It should be noted, however, that the price estimates used in the Edwards plan for the dry cask storage facility draw on estimates for an internal US facility to be serviced by rail.17 No consideration has been given to the cost of shipping the material from overseas.
Around a dozen ship loads a year would be needed to import spent fuel at the rate called for in the plan.18 It is likely that a dedicated port would also need to be constructed. The 1999 Pangea plan, which proposed a similar construction of a commercial waste repository in Australia, made allowances for “…international transport in a fleet of special purpose ships to a dedicated port in Australia”. 19
 Needless to say, building and operating highly specialised ships, or paying others to do so, would not be free. Building and operating a dedicated port would not be free. Yet none of these activities are costed in the plan.
Furthermore, beyond the known elements of transport and temporary storage, the principle technologies depended on – PRISM reactors and borehole disposal – are precisely those which are glossed over as being on the “cusp of commercialisation”.
 To put it another way: the commercial viability of these technologies is unproven.
 PRISM  [Power Reactor Innovative Small Module]The PRISM reactor is based on technology piloted in the US, up until the program was cancelled in 1994. 20 It offers existing nuclear-power nations what appears to be a tremendous deal: turn those massive stockpiles of waste into fuel, and reduce the long-term waste problem from one of millennia to one of mere centuries. It promises to be cheap, too, with the small modular design allowing mass production.
 Despite this promise, not a single PRISM reactor has actually been built. Officials at the South Korean Ministry of Science have said that they hope to have advanced reactors – if not the PRISM then something very similar – up and running by 2040.21 The Generation IV International Forum expects the first fourth generation reactors – of which the PRISM is one example – to be commercially deployed in the 2030’s.2
 After decades spent developing the technology in the United States, a US Department of Energy report dismissed the use of Advanced Disposition Reactors (ADR), a class which includes the PRISM-type integral fast reactor concept, as a way of drawing down on excess plutonium stocks. It compares it unfavourably to the existing – and expensive – mixed oxide (MOX) method of recycling nuclear fuel.
The ADR option involves a capital investment similar in magnitude to the [MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility] but with all of the risks associated with first of-a kind new reactor construction (e.g., liquid metal fast reactor), and this complex nuclear facility construction has not even been proposed yet for a Critical Decision …. Choosing the ADR option would be akin to choosing to do the MOX approach all over again, but without a directly relevant and easily accessible reference facility/operation (such as exists for MOX in France) to provide a leg up on experience and design.23
 Nevertheless, the Edwards plan hopes to have a pair of PRISMs built in 10 years.
Crucially, under the plan, Australia would have been taking spent fuel for 4 years before the first PRISM came online, assuming the reactors were built on time.
 The risk is that these integral fast reactors might turn out to be more expensive than anticipated and prove to be uneconomical. This could leave South Australia with expensive electricity and no other plan to deal with any of the spent fuel acquired to fund the reactors in the first place.
 For countries that have no long-term solution for their existing waste stockpiles, the business case for constructing a PRISM reactor is much clearer: even if the facility turns out to be uneconomical, it will nevertheless be able to process some spent fuel, thus reducing waste stockpiles. This added benefit makes the financial risk more worthwhile for such countries
Australia, on the other hand, doesn’t have an existing stockpile of high-level nuclear waste. The Edwards plan would see Australia acquire that problem in the hopes of solving it with technology never before deployed on a commercial scale. We would be buying off the plan, with many billions of dollars at stake, in the hopes that we, with little experience and minimal nuclear infrastructure, could solve a problem which has vexed far more experienced nations for decades.
 By the time the first PRISM is due to come online it will be too late to turn back, no matter what unexpected problems may be encountered. Australia would have acquired thousands of tonnes of spent fuel with no other planned use.
Counting on the development of other PRISM reactors around the world is another gamble. The proposed reprocessing plant accounts for all of the 4,000 tonne reduction in waste over the life of the plan. Australia will have no use for most of this material – the rest must be used by other PRISMs. If PRISMs are not widely adopted, Australia will have no takers. This could leave Australia with even more than 56,000 tonnes of waste, with no planned or costed solution.
 Borehole disposal 
The second element of the plan is the long-term disposal of waste from the PRISM reactors in boreholes. However this technology is still being tested.
 According to an article in the journal Science, bore-hole technology has significant issues to overcome.
The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, an independent panel that advises [the United States Department of Energy] DOE, notes a litany of potential problems: No one has drilled holes this big 5 kilometers into solid rock. If a hole isn’t smooth and straight, a liner could be hard to install, and waste containers could get stuck. It’s tricky to see flaws like fractures in rock 5 kilometers down. Once waste is buried, it would be hard to get it back (an option federal regulations now require). And methods for plugging the holes haven’t been sufficiently tested.
However, if estimates used by the Edwards plan are correct, and boreholes can be made to work as hoped, it would allow high-level nuclear waste to be disposed of for only $216,000 per tonne. The Edwards plan reduces this further for Australia, quoting only $138,000 a tonne, on the understanding that our own waste would be comparatively low level output from a PRISM – disregarding, as discussed above, the 56,000 tonnes left over.
 Nevertheless, the figure of $216,000 per tonne is important, because that is the price at which any country with suitable geology could store high level waste. It should be noted that Australia will not have exclusive access to borehole technology. If it is proven to be as effective as hoped there is nothing stopping many other countries from using it.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) notes that borehole siting activities have been initiated in Ghana, the Philippines, Malaysia and Iran.26 A pilot program is underway in the US.27 The range of geologies where boreholes may be effective is vast.
This may have serious implications for Australia’s waste disposal industry, given that other countries could build their own low-cost solution, or offer it to potential customers.
 However, if boreholes do not work as hoped, Australia will have no costed solution for the final disposal of high-level waste from its PRISM facilities. Australia would find itself in the very situation other countries had paid it to avoid.
PRICE What are countries willing to pay to have their spent fuel taken care of?
 This is an open question, as to date there is no international market in the permanent storage of high-level waste.
A figure of US$1,000,000 (A$1,370,000) per tonne is used by the Edwards plan, but this estimate does not appear to have any rigorous basis.
The Edwards plan gives only one real world example of a similar price: a recent plan by Taiwan to pay US$1,500,000 per tonne to send a small amount of its waste overseas for reprocessing. From this, the report concludes that an estimate of US$1,000,000 is entirely reasonable.
 However, the report neglects to mention several important facts about Taiwan’s proposal. First, this spent fuel was to be reprocessed, not disposed of, and most of the material was to be reclaimed as usable fuel. 29 This fuel would not be returned, but would continue to be owned by Taiwan, and be available for sale.30 If they could find a buyer, Taiwan might expect to recoup part or all of their costs by selling the reclaimed fuel to a third party.
 Second, the 20 percent of material to be converted into vitrified waste by the process was to be returned to Taiwan – no long-term storage would be part of the deal.
Third, and most importantly, the tender was suspended by the Taiwanese government pending parliamentary budget review.31 This occurred in March 2015, several months before the Edwards plan was submitted to the Royal Commission.
 Not only was the Taiwanese government proposing a completely different process to the one proposed by the Edwards plan, they weren’t willing to pay for it anyway. So the use of the Taiwanese case as a baseline example for the price Australia might hope to receive to store waste simply does not stand up to scrutiny.
The plan does briefly mention that the US nuclear power industry has set aside US$400,000 a tonne for waste disposal – to cover research, development and final disposal.32 This much lower figure is disregarded for no apparent reason, making the mid-scenario’s assumption of a price more than double this, at US$1,000,000, seem dubious. Even the pessimistic case considers a price of US$500,000 a tonne, higher than the US savings pool.
As will be discussed in the next section, the question remains: if borehole technology works as intended, and at the prices hoped for, why would any country pay another to take their waste for $1,370,000 a tonne, when a solution exists that only costs $216,000 a tonne, less than one sixth of the price?
 If South Australia led the way to prove the viability of the borehole disposal method and took on the risks associated with a first of its kind commercial operation, many other countries should be expected to use the technology for their own waste, or could offer those services to others. This alone makes the idea that other countries would pay $1,370,000 a tonne highly unlikely. ….https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/conservationsa/pages/496/attachments/original/1455085726/P222_Nuclear_waste_impossible_dream_FINAL.pdf?1455085726

Nuclear pyroprocessing and PRISM – dangerous new gimmicks

March 20, 2016

PRISM BURNS AND BREEDS PLUTONIUM MIXED WITH URANIUM AND ZIRCONIUM, THE MOST TOXIC AND DANGEROUS MAN MADE ELEMENT ON EARTH

What the pro nuclear apologists don’t talk about is just as important as what they do focus on. Because the PRISM reactor requires a mixed fuel, which has not yet been perfected and must still be ‘designed’ and experimented with, this reactor also requires a very dangerous pyroprocessing technique, which requires huge amounts of energy and must be done remotely, because it so toxic and radioactive.  To create the fuel to burn in nuclear reactors required building two massive coal fired plants that were dedicated just to running Savannah River nuclear fuels site. How much energy will this ‘new’ fuel processing technique take, and how many coal fired plants must be dedicated to it?
 The technical challenges include the fact that it would require converting the plutonium powder into a metal alloy, with uranium and zirconium. This would be a large-scale industrial activity on its own that would create “a likely large amount of plutonium-contaminated salt waste,” Simper said.
Now PRISM requires the making of radioactive fuel as well, which must also be ‘manufactured’ using even more toxic and dangerous processes than what has come before. PRISM does not burn pure plutonium, as it requires a ‘mix’ of things, which must be manufactured, in a process that has not yet been perfected. The processing and burning of plutonium, will release plutonium into the environment, guaranteed.
http://agreenroad.blogspot.com.au/2015/02/prism-liquid-sodium-cooled-small.html

Generation IV reactors will not save the nuclear industry

March 20, 2016

Nuclear renaissance? Failing industry is running flat out to stand still Jim Green, 30 Jan 2016, The Ecologist, “………Rhetoric about ‘super safe’ Generation IV reactors will likely continue unabated. That said, critical reports released by the US and French governments last year may signal a slow shift away from Generation IV reactor rhetoric.

The report by the French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) – a government authority under the Ministries of Defense, the Environment, Industry, Research, and Health – states: “There is still much R&D to be done to develop the Generation IV nuclear reactors, as well as for the fuel cycle and the associated waste management which depends on the system chosen.”

IRSN is also sceptical about safety claims: “At the present stage of development, IRSN does not notice evidence that leads to conclude that the systems under review are likely to offer a significantly improved level of safety compared with Generation III reactors … “

The US Government Accountability Office released a report in July 2015 on the status of small modular reactors (SMRs) and other ‘advanced’ reactor concepts in the US. The report concluded:

“While light water SMRs and advanced reactors may provide some benefits, their development and deployment face a number of challenges … Depending on how they are resolved, these technical challenges may result in higher-cost reactors than anticipated, making them less competitive with large LWRs [light water reactors] or power plants using other fuels … Both light water SMRs and advanced reactors face additional challenges related to the time, cost, and uncertainty associated with developing, certifying or licensing, and deploying new reactor technology, with advanced reactor designs generally facing greater challenges than light water SMR designs. It is a multi-decade process, with costs up to $1 billion to $2 billion, to design and certify or license the reactor design, and there is an additional construction cost of several billion dollars more per power plant.”

SMRs-mirage Even SMR boosters are struggling to put a positive spin on the situation. Launching a Nuclear Energy Insider report on SMRs, lead author Kerr Jeferies said: “From the outside it will seem that SMR development has hit a brick wall, but to lump the sector’s difficulties together with the death of the so-called nuclear renaissance would be missing the point.”

According to a US think tank, 48 companies in north America, backed by more than US$1.6 billion (€1.5b) in private capital, are developing plans for advanced nuclear reactors. But even if all that capital was invested in a single R&D project, it would not suffice to commercialise a new reactor type.

The UK government also sees a big future for SMRs and has evenpromised to spend £250 million on “nuclear innovation and Small Modular Reactors”. But it will face two big problems. First, the money won’t go far. And second, nuclear power is already being outcompeted by wind and solar, which are getting cheaper all the time.

Dan Yurman notes in his review of nuclear developments in 2015: “Efforts by start-up type firms to build advanced reactors will continue to generate a lot of media hype, but questions are abundant as to whether this activity will result in prototypes.

“For venture capital firms that have invested in advanced designs, cashing out may mean licensing a design to an established reactor vendor rather than building a first-of-a-kind unit.”

Dr Jim Green is the national nuclear campaigner with Friends of the Earth Australia and editor of the Nuclear Monitornewsletter, where this article was originally published. Nuclear Monitor is published 20 times a year. It has been publishing deeply researched, often strongly critical articles on all aspects of the nuclear cycle since 1978. A must-read for all those who work on this issue! disaster……. www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2987010/nuclear_renaissance_failing_industry_is_running_flat_out_to_stand_still.html

Deep waste burial a better solution than the much touted PRISM and MOX

November 19, 2015

Another option on the table is PRISM. Developed by GE Hitachi (GEH), PRISM is a sodium-cooled fast reactor that uses a metallic fuel alloy of zirconium, uranium, and plutonium. GEH claims PRISM would reduce the plutonium stockpile quicker than MOX and be the most efficient solution for the UK. The problem is, despite being based on established technology, a PRISM reactor has yet to be built, and the UK is understandably a little reluctant to commit in this direction. Seen as something of a gamble, it remains in the running alongside the currently more favoured MOX option.

Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure. Regardless of what decision is taken, a proportion of the plutonium will end up as waste and will need to be safely disposed of.

Unlike MOX and PRISM, immobilisation has no prominent industry backers. In comparison to exploiting the plutonium for our energy needs, there is no great fortune to be made from disposing of it safely. But immobilising the entire plutonium stockpile may in fact be a more economically sound approach than reprocessing

Sellafield plutonium a multi-layered problem, The Engineer UK,   6 November 2015 | By Andrew Wade   “……..It takes somewhere in the region of 5-10kg of plutonium to make a nuclear weapon, so 140 tons is a slightly worrying amount to have sitting in a concrete shed in Cumbria. While everyone at the press conference was at pains to point out that there are no major safety concerns with the current storage, it is widely accepted that a long-term plan needs to be formulated. This, however, is where things get tricky. The potential energy of the plutonium if converted to nuclear fuel is massive, but there are several competing technologies vying for endorsement, none of which are well proven as financially viable.

Top of the list – and the government’s current preference – is for some application that uses mixed oxide fuel, or MOX. MOX is made by blending plutonium with natural or depleted uranium to create a fuel that is similar, but not identical, to the low-enriched uranium used in most nuclear plants today. MOX can be – and in several European countries is – used in thermal reactors alongside uranium. But despite past concerns, there is in reality no shortage of uranium today, so no huge need to supplement it with MOX in current reactors. Where MOX could in fact lead to greater efficiencies is in fast reactors, but these are costly and difficult to operate, and would not make economic sense unless the cost of uranium fell.

To complicate matters further, developing MOX is by no means a straightforward process. A Sellafield MOX Plant was completed in 1997, didn’t actually begin operation until 2001, and was closed in 2011 after a poor performance record that saw it deliver just 5 tons of MOX in its first five years. To put that it into context, it was designed with a capacity for 120 tons a year. Total construction and operating cost was around £1.2bn. While France has had a degree of success in producing MOX, construction on the US’s MOX production facility at the Savannah River Site was recently pushed back a decade, and may not be in operation until 2033.

Another option on the table is PRISM. Developed by GE Hitachi (GEH), PRISM is a sodium-cooled fast reactor that uses a metallic fuel alloy of zirconium, uranium, and plutonium. GEH claims PRISM would reduce the plutonium stockpile quicker than MOX and be the most efficient solution for the UK. The problem is, despite being based on established technology, a PRISM reactor has yet to be built, and the UK is understandably a little reluctant to commit in this direction. Seen as something of a gamble, it remains in the running alongside the currently more favoured MOX option.

Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure. Regardless of what decision is taken, a proportion of the plutonium will end up as waste and will need to be safely disposed of. One of the speakers at the press conference was Professor Neil Hyatt from the University of Sheffield. A materials science specialist, Hyatt is currently developing an immobilisation technique that can be used to render the plutonium unsuitable for weaponisation, allowing it to be more safely stored in the longer term. Using a form of hot isostatic pressing (HIP), the process mimics the formation of ancient minerals by using extreme heat and pressure to lock the plutonium inside ceramic based wasteforms.

According to Hyatt, the HIP technology is about a decade away from operation. Unlike MOX and PRISM, immobilisation has no prominent industry backers. In comparison to exploiting the plutonium for our energy needs, there is no great fortune to be made from disposing of it safely. But immobilising the entire plutonium stockpile may in fact be a more economically sound approach than reprocessing, says Hyatt. Some see this as madness, putting all that potential energy beyond the use of future generations. Others believe the technology needed to exploit that energy is decades away, by which point fusion and renewables will be better options. Just about the only thing the NDA could say with certainty, was that the right decision is more important than a quick one. We wait with bated breath.  http://www.theengineer.co.uk/blog/sellafield-plutonium-a-multi-layered-problem/1021371.article 

MOX nuclear reprocessing costs twice as much as deep burial of wastes

September 4, 2015

Disposal beats MOX in US comparison  http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/WR-Disposal-beats-MOX-in-US-comparison-2108151.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter  21 August 2015

America is reconsidering how it will dispose of 34 tonnes of plutonium as the previous plan involving a MOX plant has been said to be twice as costly as a dilution and disposal option in a leaked Department of Energy (DOE) report.

The plutonium arises from a June 2000 nuclear weapons reduction agreement with Russia under which both countries would put 34 tonnes of plutonium beyond military use. Russia opted to use its plutonium as fuel for fast reactors generating power at Beloyarsk.

The USA, meanwhile, decided to build a mixed-oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel plant at Savannah River, where the plutonium would be mixed with uranium and made into fuel for light-water reactors. The design is similar to Areva’s Melox facility at Marcoule, but modified to handle metal plutonium ‘pits’ from US weapons and their conversion from metal to plutonium oxide. It is this part of the process that has been problematic. Construction started in 2007 with an estimated cost of $4.9 billion but work ran into serious trouble before being ‘zeroed’ in the DOE’s 2014 budget, putting development on ice.

The Union of Concerned Scientists yesterday published what it said was an unreleased DOE report that compared the cost of completing the MOX plant to other options. Use in fast reactors was considered briefly, but with this technology not readily available in the near term, the prime comparison was against a ‘dilution and disposal’ option which would see the plutonium mixed with inert materials and disposed of in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, in New Mexico.

Despite being 60% built, the MOX plant still needs some 15 years of construction work, said the leaked report, and then about three years of commissioning. Once in operation the plant would work through the plutonium over about 10 years with this 28-year program to cost $700-800 million per year – a total of $19.6-22.4 billion on top of what has already been spent. Not only is the price tag very high, but the timescale is too long: the report said this would not meet the disposal timeframe agreed with Russia.

The cost of the MOX plant could not be mitigated by income from sales of the MOX fuel because the regulatory process to gain approval to use MOX would be too burdensome for a commercial utility. The report said “it may be unlikely” that even a utility in a regulated market where fuel costs are passed on to consumers would “bear the risk of MOX fuel even if it is free”.

Dilution and disposal would cost $400 million per year, said the report, “over a similar duration” as MOX, working out at close to half the cost. Other advantages for dilution and disposal are that it requires no new facilities to be created or decommissioned after use, although the increase in WIPP disposal means “it may eventually become desirable to explore expansion of WIPP’s capacity” beyond currently legislated limits. This unique geologic disposal facility was said to be of “tremendous value to both DOE and the State of New Mexico”.

USA finally entombs its Experimental Breeder Reactor-II

July 31, 2015

USA’s Experimental Breeder Reactor-II now permanently entombed, World Nuclear News 01 July 2015 The main clean-up contractor at the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Idaho Site, has entombed an historic nuclear reactor in place and treated the reactor’s remaining sodium coolant….CH2M-WG, Idaho, LLC (CWI) said yesterday that crews with the Decontamination and Decommissioning (D&D) Program recently completed pouring more than 3400 cubic yards of concrete grout into the basement of the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) building to fill in any remaining void spaces and effectively entomb the reactor.

Workers also removed and treated the last of the sodium coolant from the reactor’s nine heat exchangers. The exchangers were used to cool the liquid metal and direct the steam to a generating turbine to produce electricity when the reactor was operating.

The EBR-II was the basis of the US Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) program…….. The reactor was shut down in 1994 and its fuel was removed and transported to another site facility for safe storage.

The DOE grouted the reactor in place instead of removing it to protect workers from industrial hazards and radiological risks, CWI said. Crews filled the reactor vessel with grout over two years ago and recently completed the remainder of grouting at the facility under CWI’s contract.