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.
Frank von Hippel, Princeton University
Co-chair, International Panel on Fissile Material (IPFM)
Senate Staff Briefing, 20 July 2009
International Panel on Fissile Materials website:www.fissilematerials.org
(“Rethinking Nuclear Fuel Recycling,” Scientific American, May 2008)
What is spent fuel?
5.4% fission products & misc. radioisotopes
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.
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.)
But it does get the spent fuel off the reactor sites but:
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.
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).
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.
Plutonium in Spent fuel protected Separated plutonium by fission products handled easily
Spent fuel assembly
(1000 pounds, 12 feet long
contains 5 kg of plutonium)
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)
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.
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.
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.
"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.)
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.