[ RadSafe ] News Article: Nuclear reincarnation . . . and reprocessing

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Wed Jun 14 15:02:35 CDT 2006

The following appears in Nature 441, 796-797 (15 June
2006) Published online 14 June 2006
They have a good graphic map which can be found at the

Nuclear reincarnation

Abstract:  Using nuclear power on a grand scale
requires that spent nuclear fuel be reused. Emma
Marris finds out which of the world's nations could
jump on a reprocessing bandwagon.

It used to be that people were either pro or anti
nuclear power — and that they would let you know which
through a sticker on their car bumper. Now the debate
is shifting. As evidence for global warming mounts,
getting rid of nuclear power, with its very low carbon
emissions, looks harder to justify in today's world
than it did in the 1970s; hence the talk of a 'nuclear
renaissance'. But there is a difference between
keeping today's nuclear-power capacity (about 365 GW
of capacity, which is responsible for generating
roughly 16% of the world's electricity) and greatly
increasing it. With extensive nuclear expansion
depending on reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, whether
or not to reprocess is now shaping up to be a new
dividing line in the nuclear debate.

Reprocessing retrieves plutonium and unused uranium
from used nuclear fuel. If you want to make
sophisticated nuclear weapons, you need to have a
reprocessing capacity, and the world's main
nuclear-weapon powers all do. But not all of them have
the capacity to reprocess spent fuel for civilian
purposes. The United States has eschewed reprocessing
as a way of making reactor fuel for the past 30 years.
Now it is reconsidering it, sparking a reappraisal of
the technology around the world.

Reprocessing makes usable fuel out of unusable waste,
and in doing so reduces the volume and activity of
what's left behind. The proposed conversion to civil
reprocessing in the United States is being spurred in
part by a desire to limit the amount of waste that
needs to be put into long-term storage at the
contentious Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. Supporters
point to the reduction of waste and the increase in
the amount of energy that can be extracted from a
fixed amount of fuel as 'green' credentials for the
technology. They also point out that the world's
uranium supplies may not be sufficient to support an
aggressive expansion of nuclear power unless fuel is

But reprocessing is also accident-prone, expensive and
makes available the sort of stuff that can be used to
build bombs. No country has yet managed to make
reprocessed fuel cheaper than the enriched uranium
that is used in most reactors, undercutting any
economic rationale at today's uranium prices.

The reprocessing method the US Department of Energy
proposes, called UREX+, aims to reduce the possibility
of reprocessed plutonium being used in weapons by
leaving it mixed with other highly radioactive metals.
This supposedly leaves it too radioactive for
malefactors to handle. But many opponents believe that
the methods being discussed are still a security risk.

The issues are a little too complex to get on to a
bumper sticker. But the current state of play can be
displayed on a map.

[See map]

The United States is mulling over a proposal from the
Bush administration to return to reprocessing, which
the country has abjured due to proliferation concerns
since India tested a bomb made from extracted
plutonium in 1974. The new scheme, called the Global
Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), would have
nuclear-weapons states plus Japan sending fuel to
other states for use in their standard reactors. The
donor countries would then take the fuel back for
reprocessing. The idea has been received frostily in
some quarters. The House of Representatives allocated
about half of the funds requested by the
administration to the project, saying there was too
little detail in the plan to warrant a $250-million
investment. Many scientists and activists — both pro
and anti nuclear power — have criticized the
economics, timing and safety of the plan.

The United Kingdom is home to the Sellafield site,
where a reprocessing plant called Thorp has been
inoperative since the discovery in April 2005 of a
broken pipe that was leaking uranium and plutonium in
a sealed-off cell. The incident renewed talk of
shutting down the plant, which has been charged with
polluting the Irish and North Seas. The publicly owned
contractor that runs the whole Sellafield site,
including two reprocessing plants and a hodgepodge of
retired infrastructure needing clean-up, is up for

France is the king of reprocessing (the United
Kingdom's Thorp plant never ran at capacity). Nuclear
company Areva has plants at La Hague that have
reprocessed waste from France's own extensive
nuclear-power industry, as well as from Belgium,
Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan. In 2004 and
2005, weapons-grade plutonium that the United States
promised Russia it would get rid of was reprocessed at
Areva's Cadarache fuel plant into mixed-oxide (MOX)
fuel. The MOX fuel was then used at the Catawba
Nuclear Station in South Carolina.

Sweden is now thinking of reprocessing the waste from
its nuclear-power industry for the first time in 20
years. A shipment of waste will set sail for
Sellafield in the summer of 2007, if all goes as

India reprocesses at three small plants. Famously, it
got the technology from the United States, then used
the plutonium it extracted to make a nuclear bomb,
which it tested in 1974. India was affronted when
asked to join the GNEP not as a provider of
reprocessing power but as a client.

Australia's prime minister, John Howard, announced on
6 June that the nuclear-free country will study the
possibility of building some nuclear power plants, and
of becoming a reprocessing nation. Howard visited US
energy secretary Sam Bodman last month to discuss the
GNEP reprocessing scheme.

Russia reprocesses its waste to form uranium, which it
uses again as fuel, and plutonium, which it stores.
Plans to build fast reactors that could burn pure
plutonium have been edging forwards for years. Russia
would like to import waste from other countries to
stake a claim in a future 'plutonium economy', in part
because it has little domestic uranium. According to
Russian news reports, the head of the Mayak
reprocessing plant, Vitaliy Sadovnikov, was charged
with polluting the river Techa in March, but given
amnesty in May because it was the 100th anniversary of
the national state legislature.

Japan has just begun a 17-month test phase at the
brand-new Rokkasho reprocessing plant, which is far
larger than the Tokai pilot reprocessing plant, now
headed for retirement. The new plant's capacity will
be 800 tonnes per year. Japan has also agreed, on
paper, to join the GNEP, but a 1988 agreement banning
the transfer of reprocessing technology between Japan
and the United States is standing in the way.

"You get a lot more authority when the workforce doesn't think it's amateur hour on the top floor."
GEN. MICHAEL V. HAYDEN, President Bush's nominee for C.I.A. director.

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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