Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wasting an opportunity

The U.K. pushes back on PRISM and the U.S. gets ready to kick the spent fuel can down the road

The UK's idealistic view of how to
deal with spent fuel
One thing you can say that is the U.K. and the U.S. agree when it comes to avoiding make a decision on surplus nuclear materials. In the U.K. the government's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has just turned down an offer from General Electric to use its PRISM fast reactor to burn surplus plutonium.

In the U.S next week the Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission will issue a final report that will fail to set a strategy for dealing with the nation's spent nuclear fuel.

There are different reasons for these decisions which are explored here.  What they have in common is that both governments are composed of people who outside of their offices have the usual allotments of common sense, but seem to lose their collective grip on it once in office.

Plan for Sellafield rejected

The Guardian newspaper reports Jan 24 that plans to use two 300 MW sodium cooled fast reactors to burn 82 tonnes of surplus plutonium has been rejected by the NDA.  According to the newspaper, it reviewed internal emails from the government agency.  An anti-nuclear activist obtained them under a Freedom of Information request and shared the messages with the newspaper.  The newspaper reports that the NDA's reason for rejecting the technology is that it regards it as "immature and commercially unproven."

The agency's managers also reportedly said in their electronic communications that they felt the reactor would create large amounts of plutonium contaminated waste  and increase the risk that terrorists might access it to make nuclear weapons.

Last November, GE submitted an unsolicited offer to the NDA to use its new technology which is based on the design of the Integral Fast Reactor first deployed at the Argonne National Laboratory - West site in Idaho. It was in continuous development for several decades until it was cancelled by the Clinton Administration in the mid-1990s.

The Guardian reports that in an email sent to GE on Nov 29 NDA strategy and technology director Adrian Simper said that the NDA and GE worked at an agreement but could not come to terms. Simper reportedly wrote the government "is not prepared to take technology risk on a new reactor."

In addition to technology risks, the government also reportedly demanded a price cap on the project of $3.9 billion.  It isn't clear how it came up with that number.

The NDA then sent an email to the U.K. Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC).

It reportedly said that while the NDA had carried out a "high level assessment" of the PRISM technology, it concluded that the technology had not yet been demonstrated in a commercial setting and that it was not developed enough for the agency to commit to using it.

Perhaps most significantly, the NDA reportedly said the PRISM reactor would not be ready to run until 2050.  The agency says it wants a solution sooner than that date.

Eric Loewen, the chief engineer for the PRISM reactor, disputed that last claim pointing out the technology has 30 years of experience under its belt.  He may get a chance to make his case.  The DECC said in an email response to the NDA it remains open to "technically mature proposals."

In the meantime, the government maintains that its best option is to use the plutonium to make mixed oxide fuel.  More than 30 reactors world wide use MOX which typically, is about 5% PU-239 and the rest U238. There are differences depending on whether the plutonium is weapons grade or taken from spent fuel burned in commercial reactors.

The MOX is a good source of export revenues for the government which also may be the reason it prefers that option.

For more details on the PRISM reactor proposal see my report at ANS Nuclear Cafe published 12/22/11.

Update 01/26/12:  According to one source, the UK NDA says it is still considering GE-Hitachi fast reactors at Sellafield for plutonium disposition. 

Blue Ribbon Commission to punt

Next week you should be able to download a thick report from the Department of Energy's Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC).  It will be an instant doorstop because it won't move the government any closer to taking action on dealing with spent fuel.

Instead, due to election year politics, the BRC, which has been called the "do nothing before the 2012 election commission" will basically tune up its draft report released for comment last July.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s draft report contained little that could not be written on the day of its first meeting in January 2010. The draft report calls for several well understood actions. 
  • Set up interim storage at one or more locations, any place but Yucca mountain. Charter an off-the-books federal corporation, funded by waste fees, to pay for management of spent fuel.
  • Find a deep geological site to put the stuff.
  • Conduct R&D on reprocessing and fast reactors.
  • Do the work consistent with the nation’s nonproliferation objectives.
The BRC noted that it sees “no unmanageable safety or security risks associated with current methods of storage” in the U.S. This is the essence of the charge the BRC has kicked the can down the road leaving nuclear utilities holding the bag, so to speak, with wet and dry at reactor storage of spent fuel.

The situation could remain unchanged for decades or longer. Spent fuel can be moved to dry cask storage after cooling off for about five years. The dry casks have expected lifetimes of up to 60 years under the NRC's current waste confidence decision.

Not satisfied with kicking cans

Dry cask storage. Image: U.S. NRC
The New York Times reports Jan 24 that a coalition of nuclear energy industry groups thinks the government can and should do better.  According to the newspaper, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main trade association of the reactor operators, was joined by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition.

All three have endorsed development of interim storage sites for spent fuel. Currently, almost all spent fuel is stored at the reactor sites where it was created in the first place.

The three groups also want a new agency such as the one proposed by now former Ohio Sen. George Voinovitch.  As an off-the-books agency, it would be funded by the $25 billion nuclear waste fund and take title to and manage the nation's inventory of commercial spent nuclear fuel. Finding an interim storage site, and moving it there, would be the first order of business. Recycling the fuel could come later. 

So far the Obama administration has shown little interest in the idea.  That head in the sand stance is likely to continue until it wins a second term.  As the White House sees things, there is no sense in aggravating the voters in Nevada until after November this year.


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2 comments:

Joffan said...

The Guardian has a bit of an agenda - at least, many of its staff do. The dates on the e-mails suggest that all we have seen so far is some reluctance at the NDA to jump on this particular option. What we don't know is what has happened since then - after all, the NDA has not made a public response to GE - or what other e-mails were picked up in this trawl that we're not being told about.

Personally I am still in "wait and see" mode on UK PRISM build.

Tom Blees said...

That piece in the Guardian was an inaccurate agenda-driven hatchet job by a freelance journalist long known for his antinuclear agenda. The email cited was from the day before GE offered a closed meeting of UK officials to guarantee that the PRISMs will work as advertised, guaranteed. And the article conveniently omitted the final line in the email: "I look forward to meeting with you again and progressing following the approach outlined above." Of course that would have given the lie not only to the premise of the article but to its headline! The discussions between the UK and GE are still ongoing. I'm sorry to see this reporter repeating the unfounded assertion that GE's offer has been rejected. It has not.

The Guardian itself, while left-leaning, saw fit to publish Monbiot's piece recently that was not only favorable to the IFR but broke the news about GE's unusual offer, quite out of character for a company in proposing a FOAK build—which should say something about the confidence they have in their system. And well they should, for it's based on 30 years of successful operation of the EBR-II.

I do wish that the Guardian would have allowed comments following that article, for it could easily have been shredded by anybody in the know. It was a poor editorial decision to run it, poorer still not to point out the fact that the author was a freelance antinuclear ideologue.