A leading scientist at the Idaho National Laboratory asserts the U.S. "must get back in the game" of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. Terry Todd, Director of the Fuel Cycle Division, told a meeting of the Idaho Section of the American Nuclear Society on May 8th France, Russia, China, and Japan have aggressive plans to build fast reactors to burn MOX fuel.
"They have a 30-year vision," Todd says, and, by comparison, "the U.S. has lost its leadership role in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel. We will have to build our physical and human infrastructure from scratch to be consistent with the way the world is going to work by the middle of this century." The implication is that some of the key economies of the world will see a major shift in fuel for energy from fossil sources to uranium and plutonium.
Todd says the problem domestically is that "for the past 25 years no one in the U.S. nuclear industry has been able to say the word 'reprocessing'." It's not that the U.S. doesn't have the inventory to proceed. With a backlog of more than 70,000 tons even two new 1,000 ton per year reprocessing plants won't make a dent in it. Worse, the U.S. will likely increase its current storage of spent nuclear fuel from the current rate of 2,100 metric tons per year as new plants come on line. "The nuclear renaissance hasn't happened yet, but it will," Todd says.
There isn't much hope of a commercial solution. The government started and stopped reprocessing spent nuclear fuel several times creating a situation where no private sector firm is going to spent billions over a ten-year period given the capricious nature of plutonium politics. President Jimmy Carter stopped spent fuel recycling, President Ronald Reagan re-started it, and there have been several iterations since then. The last commercial venture was the ill-fated West Valley facility which operated from 1966-1972.
Terrific challenges for restart of recycling
Todd told the audience the key option for recycling spent nuclear fuel is to recycle the uranium and plutonium to produce Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) for use in light water reactors. The issue is how many commercial nuclear reactors, especially merchants, are likely to use it. The answer, Todd concedes, is relatively few because of the risks associated with new fuel types.
According to Todd, this means if the government wants to burn MOX, it is going to have to build fast burner reactors especially for this fuel type and lease them to the private sector for operations to generate electricity. These reactors will still have to be cost effective and produce a profit in terms of the cost of electricity sold to end-users. There are terrific challenges to realizing this vision.
"The cost of these reactors will be a very tough sell to Congress to get them to spend this kind of money," Todd said.
Another challenge is that with 70,000 tons stored at reactors and production of 2,100 tons per year of spent nuclear fuel, the size of the backlog vastly exceeds the processing capability of even three new 1,000 ton/year plants. By comparison Todd says, the reprocessing plant at Thorp in the U.K. has a capacity of 1,200 tons per year, but only operates at 75% capacity. The new Japanese plant at Rokkasho has a capacity of 800 tons/year, and is currently in hot start-up mode with full operations slated for later this year. In France the La Hague facility reportedly has a capacity of 1,700 tons/year.
A different idea than Yucca?
Todd says the Department of Energy is aware the technical capacity of the Yucca Mountain is 120,000 tons, but the policy limit set by Congress is 63,000 tons LWR spent fuel and 7,000 tons DOD spent fuel. Todd asks rhetorically, "What happens when Yucca is full?" The answer appears to be the U.S. will have to shift to reprocessing or build a second geologic repository.
Most other nations with advanced nuclear energy programs have a completely different idea. They plan to provide the energy for their economies by mid-century with plutonium and uranium from reprocessed fuel.
The current plan for an advanced spent fuel recycling paradigm in France, China, Russia, and Japan is to recycle uranium as part of an "aggressive plan" for fast reactors. This is a 30-year vision Todd said.
There are no fast reactors in the U.S. since EBR-II shut down. For instance, Todd described efforts inFrance to target a major fast burner reactor program by mid-century. Similar efforts are underway in China, Russia, and Japan. They all plan to have "plutonium economies" Todd said. Given the price of oil, it makes sense.
For instance, Japan just announced it will build a 1,400 MW reactor to use MOX at Ohma in northern Japan. The reactor is due to be completed in 2012. Japan's power industry has said it wants 16-18 plants using reprocessed fuel by that date.
Past efforts project into the future
Todd points out that past history of spent fuel recycling in the U.S. focused on the PUREX process which was deployed at Idaho, Hanford, and Savannah River starting in the 1950s.
A problem with PUREX, and one of the reasons Jimmy Carter stopped it, is that it accumulates plutonium which is expensive and dangerous to store and is a target for nuclear weapons proliferation.
"No technology is intrinsically proliferation resistant, " Todd noted and he offers some observations about how the U.S. is changing its thinking about nonproliferation and fuel recycling. What we learned from 9/11, Todd observes, is that the so-called "reasonable man" approach to security for highly radioactive materials is no longer valid.
"We know that people might sacrifice themselves for a cause and deliberate expose themselves to fatal levels of radiation in order to steal plutonium to make bombs."
It follows that an alternative path is to focus on how attractive the material would be, e.g., blending plutonium with other materials so that it is extremely difficult to extract it to make a conventional nuclear weapon.
As far as the U.S. getting back into recycling, development of a demonstration or pilot plant is important. There are four factors in an effective nuclear nonproliferation program which can make that possible Todd said. They are technology for the fuel itself, safeguards in handling the fuel, security for fuel reprocessing facilities, and transparency through the IAEA.
Areva / Boston Consulting Group Study
Areva and the Boston Consulting Group developed a study that shows the cost of nuclear fuel recycling is about 10% of the cost of the total fuel cycle. The process is capital intensive no matter how you measure it.
According to the World Nuclear Association, a report published in 2006 by the Boston Consulting Group for Areva, and based on proprietary information from that firm, showed that recycling used fuel in the US using the COEX aqueous process would be economically competitive with direct disposal of used fuel. A $12 billion, 2500 ton/year plant was considered, with total capital expenditure of $16 billion for all related aspects. This plant have the benefit of reducing demand on space at the Yucca mountain repository.
Boston Consulting gave four reasons for reconsidering US used fuel strategy which has applied since 1977:
- Cost estimates for direct disposal at Yucca Mountain had risen sharply and capacity was limited (even if doubled),
- Increased US nuclear generation, potentially from 103 to 160 GWe,
- The economics of reprocessing and associated waste disposal have improved,
- There is now a lot of experience with civil reprocessing.
Is there a cost effective solution?
Todd said analysis has shown huge facilities like the Savannah River Site are not cost effective, and if the U.S. gets back into fuel recycling, it will need to build several 1,000 ton/year plants rather than one plant that does 3,000 ton/year. Achieving a commitment to build even a pilot plant could be a daunting challenge. Todd pointed out cost estimates for very complex first-of-a-kind facilities are hard to validate.
Todd also points out the U.S. will generate 2,100 ton/year spent nuclear fuel or twice the processing capacity of the world's two largest operating plants in Japan, the U.K., and France.
The focus at the INL on GNEP, Todd emphasizes, is to make less waste at lower costs with an effective process that is easier to operate than the ones built in the 1950s.
The rising cost of at reactor spent fuel storage is going to drive the U.S. to a solution one way or the other Todd said.