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Interim Dry-cask Storage vs. Spent-fuel Reprocessing. Frank von Hippel , Princeton University Co-chair, International Panel on Fissile Material (IPFM) Senate Staff Briefing, 20 July 2009. IPFM Reports on reprocessing and breeder programs.

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interim dry cask storage vs spent fuel reprocessing
Interim Dry-cask Storage vs. Spent-fuel Reprocessing

Frank von Hippel, Princeton University

Co-chair, International Panel on Fissile Material (IPFM)

Senate Staff Briefing, 20 July 2009

ipfm reports on reprocessing and breeder programs
IPFM Reports on reprocessing and breeder programs

International Panel on Fissile Materials

  • Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing

(“Rethinking Nuclear Fuel Recycling,” Scientific American, May 2008)

  • Japan’s Spent Fuel and Plutonium Management Challenges
  • Spent Fuel Reprocessing in France
  • The Legacy of Reprocessing in the United Kingdom
fresh low enriched uranium fuel
Fresh low-enriched uranium fuel

What is spent fuel?



95.6 %



U-238 &


12 feet

0.8% U-235

1.2% plutonium

5.4% fission products & misc. radioisotopes

4.4% U-235

8 inches

Brief history of U.S. debate over reprocessing(Reprocessing involves dissolving the spent fuel and recovering separated plutonium)

1960s and early 1970s

Massive US Atomic Energy Commission program to promote plutonium breeder reactors worldwide, including encouraging other countries to recover plutonium from spent fuel to startup the breeder reactors.

In 1974, India used the first plutonium it separated with U.S. assistance for a nuclear explosive.

brief history cont
Brief History (cont.)

The Debate Since

1974-77: Ford and Carter Administration reviews concluded reprocessing and breeder reactors uneconomic and unnecessary.

1981: Reagan Administration supported reprocessing -- if paid for by the utilities. But the utilities not interested.

2006: G.W. Bush Administration proposed to build a reprocessing plant with taxpayer money but Congress became skeptical and refused funding.

2009: Obama Administration supports only research.


For 75% of global nuclear capacity (including in U.S.) spent fuel is stored in cooling ponds for up to 2 decades and then in massive air-cooled dry casks (Connecticut Yankee, U.S.)

in france spent fuel is chemically reprocessed and plutonium is recycled in fresh fuel once
InFrance, spent fuel is chemically “reprocessed” and plutonium is recycled in fresh fuel once

But it does get the spent fuel off the reactor sites but:

  • Costs $0.5 billion more for a 1000-MWe nuclear power plant (report to the Prime Minister, 2000); and
  • Complicates the waste problem.

Japan is trying to emulate France but its reprocessing plant costs twice as much per unit capacity and it doesn’t work.

UK reprocessing has been a failure and a taxpayer-funded Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has been established to carry out a $100 billion cleanup project.


La Hague reprocessing plant($18 billion overnight capital) and $0.9 billion/year operational cost

Huge quantities of concentrated liquid radioactive waste (100 Chernobyl equivalents) – a potential terrorism target.

u s nuclear utility position
U.S. Nuclear Utility Position

They are paying 0.1 cent per nuclear kWh to the U.S. Government to dispose of their spent fuel in an underground repository (1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act).

If the Government decides on a costly program to build a reprocessing plant and plutonium burner reactors, the taxpayer should pay the extra cost ($100s of billions).

reprocessing and us nonproliferation policy
Reprocessing and US nonproliferation policy

After India’s 1974 nuclear test, U.S. policy became (in effect): “We don’t reprocess; you don’t need to either.”

A tremendous success. Many countries abandoned reprocessing.

Only one non-weapon state (Japan) reprocesses today (started in 1970s)

All other countries that reprocess today used reprocessing initially to acquire nuclear weapons.


Why Reprocessing fosters nuclear-weapons proliferation

Plutonium in Spent fuel protected Separated plutonium by fission products handled easily

Separated plutonium

Spent fuel assembly

(1000 pounds, 12 feet long

contains 5 kg of plutonium)

3 feet

1 m.

50 years after discharge, fuel assembly lethal (400 rems) in 30 min.

20-ton container to transport & reprocessing behind thick walls to recover plutonium

2.5 kg plutonium in light-weight container. Can be processed in a glove box. 3-4 cans enough for Nagasaki-type bomb.

(Mayak Reprocessing Plant, 1994)

there is no such thing as proliferation resistant reprocessing
There is no such thing as “proliferation-resistant” reprocessing

The plutonium dilutants that have been proposed by DOE raise the radiation level from the mix to less than 0.00001 of level from 50-year-old spent fuel.

-- An insignificant improvement over separated plutonium.

Even if the radiation levels were higher, possession of a reprocessing plant with its remote handling capabilities would make it easy to separate out pure plutonium.

bush administration proposal for solving the proliferation problem associated with reprocessing
Bush Administration proposal for solving the proliferation problem associated with reprocessing

In 2004, President Bush proposed the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) (in effect):

“In order to prevent the spread of the technology, countries that already do so will reprocess spent fuel for non-weapon states (other than Japan).”

Many countries objected to a discriminatory regime in which some countries can own fuel-cycle facilities and others cannot.

In any case, selling reprocessing services internationally has already been tried and failed.(all countries with nuclear power plants)
why are countries not interested in renewing their reprocessing contracts
Why are countries not interested in renewing their reprocessing contracts?

The first reprocessing contract allows a country to export its spent fuel problem temporarily but, once the high-level waste starts coming back, grace period is over.

Domestic politics in the reprocessing countries require that they send back the high-level radioactive waste to their customers.

No reason for a country pay 10x the cost of storage to turn spent fuel into high-level radioactive waste.

Oct. 2007: National Academy of SciencesPeer Review(, Summary, pp. 8-9)

"All committee members agree that the GNEP [DOE’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership reprocessing] program should not go forward and should be replaced by a less aggressive research program” (same conclusion as 1996 review).

(Only dissent was by those who did not see the point of any more R&D.)

safety of interim storage of dry cask spent fuel at reactor sites
Safety of interim storage of dry-cask spent fuel at reactor sites

No accident risk and, at operating nuclear power plants, potential consequences of most attacks on dry-cask-stored fuel would be orders of magnitude less than the potential consequences from an attack on the reactor or its spent-fuel-storage pool.

Spent fuel should be removed eventually but no reason to panic.

summary cost and benefits of reprocessing
Summary: Cost and benefits of reprocessing
  • Costs much more than dry-cask storage.
  • Much more dangerous than dry-cask storage (liquid HLW).
  • France’s approach does not reduce radioactive waste problem. Other approaches result in minor reductions at most
  • Makes plutonium much easier to steal.
  • Provides cover for countries to separate plutonium for weapons (as India did in 1974).



  • Provides an interim off-site destination for spent fuel (political)
  • Tens of billions of dollars for Areva (hence relentless lobbying).