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Scientific American Article on Used Fuel Technologies

The December issue of Scientific American includes an article on smarter use of nuclear waste (subscription required for full article) that provides a comprehensive summary of advanced used fuel treatment technologies.

Here's a glimpse at the overview of fuel recycling that the article provides:
• To minimize global warming, humanity may need to generate much of its future energy using nuclear power technology, which itself releases essentially no carbon dioxide.
• Should many more of today’s thermal (or slow-neutron) nuclear power plants be built, however, the world’s reserves of low-cost uranium ore will be tapped out within several decades. In addition, large quantities of highly radioactive waste produced just in the U.S. will have to be stored for at least 10,000 years—much more than can be accommodated by the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. Worse, most of the energy that could be extracted from the original uranium ore would be socked away in that waste.
• The utilization of a new, much more efficient nuclear fuel cycle—one based on fast-neutron reactors and the recycling of spent fuel by pyrometallurgical processing—would allow vastly more of the energy in the earth’s readily available uranium ore to be used to produce electricity. Such a cycle would greatly reduce the creation of long-lived reactor waste and could support nuclear power generation indefinitely.
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The Commander said…
This is an article I came across while trying to catch up on the situation In Pakistan since the earthquake. I found it a bit troubling...

"There is fifteen to twenty per cent damage to Pakistani nuclear facilities and storage sites in the Northern Areas, especially in Skardu and Chitral, and the local population faces the risk of contamination, but a curfew has been imposed, and they are being actively prevented by the authorities from leaving the area.
Because of the serious damage to the nuclear facilities in the Northern Areas, the Pakistan government has turned away international relief teams, prevented Indian Army relief work and Indian Air Force supply drops, and withdrawn the consent for Israeli assistance, fearing that Mossad agents would be infiltrated who would destroy the atomic establishments.
While Western sources did not say that reactors had been damaged in the 8 October earthquake, they confirmed that missile silos had developed cracks, and storage facilities had taken a hit, and since the epicentre is likely to be seismically active for another two years, they expressed fear of further collapse of the nuclear establishments.
To prevent leak of this massive nuclear destruction, Pakistan both bottled up the local population by imposing curfew, and did not permit international inspection of the disaster-hit areas."

I fear that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that there could be major ecological damage to the area and it would appear that people under the curfew might have been exposed to radiation.

Anonymous said…
What I always point out to the conservation-only advocates is that for conservation to work, you need an energy source to conserve. As power plants age, those sources are going away. Because of the wear-out factor alone, at some point you need to bring new sources in. It has been proven (in real-life, with the California electricity shortage of the past, the potential shortfall now facing the Northeast) that "renewables" alone can't carry the load. So what do you want those replacement sources to be, GHG-emitting (coal, oil, natural gas), or emissions-free (nuclear)?
Anonymous said…
Sorry. The previous comment was intended for another thread.
Paul said…
Apparently both are...
Paul, NIRS
Paul said…
... more to the SA article:

interesting, will have to pick up a copy... particularly with most recent news of Zimbabwe's recently discovered uranium deposits and President Robert Mugabe's announcement that Zimbabwe intends to pursue becoming a nuclear power.

Imagine a enough enriched uranium and plutonium worldwide to fuel an African nuclear weapons race as well as North Korea and Japan, Iran and Israel, Pakistan and India, on and on in horizontal as well as vertical nuclear weapons proliferation until somebody decides to use them...

It seems pitifully stupid,
Paul, NIRS
Brian Mays said…
The scenario above is not very difficult to imagine. In fact, there already exists enough highly enriched uranium and plutonium to fuel a nuclear weapons race (and in fact it already has fueled such a race between the US and the former USSR).

That is why this material should be converted into fuel and disposed of in reactors to generate electricity. Fortunately, there are programs underway to do just that.
Paul said…

As long as we are enriching uranium and processing nuclear waste the pathway for open the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

My point being that the more possessors and greater number of weapons makes their use increasingly likely by accident or deliberately. Nuclear weapons proliferation and an increasing risks of nuclear war will always be the devil's bargin with nuclear power.

Paul, NIRS
Rod Adams said…

Just as a thought exercise, consider the following - nuclear weapons have been used exactly twice in warfighting. At the time that they were used, the number of nations possessing the weapon was precisely one and the number of available weapons was two (after the initial test was complete), both of which were used.

Ever since then, the number of nations possessing the technology has increased and the number of weapons has expanded to number in the tens of thousands. None of those have been used.

Not that I advocate further weapons developments, but it appears that reality does not agree with your assertion.
Paul said…
Reality can change quickly both by accident and deliberately.

Neither you nor I know how close we have come to nuclear war or how many times. I am old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis.

Paul, NIRS
Anonymous said…
"Nuclear waste, despite the ignorant half-truths and inventions of those who fear it, and despite the fact that we would rather not have it, is one of the best reasons for developing nuclear power relative to any other major reliable source of energy other than hydro. When you add its minimal pollution contributions; its much better safety record than any large energy source; and its improving cost advantages at this time, there should be no contest, yet the emotionally slanted nuclear mythologies keep rearing their heads." John K. Sutherland, Chief Scientist, Edutech Enterprises

The good Doctor summarizes the situation of "Nuclear Power And Politics" in an article that may be obtained at web page:

The interested reader may also want to study Dr. Sutherland's other articles on this issue:

Nuclear Waste Perspectives Part 1

Nuclear Waste Perspectives Part 2

Nuclear Cycles and Nuclear Resources

Nuclear Power Comparisons and Perspective

Reprocessing has the capability to significantly reduce the amount of long-lived actinides in spent fuel by consuming them in either Integral Fast Reactors or Carlo Rubbia Energy Amplifiers. Instead of requiring storage in a geological repository for tens of thousands of years, only 300 to 600 years would be required. See web links below:



As far as weapons proliferation concerns go, the US ban on reprocessing has NOT prevent India, Pakistan, North Korea or Israel from obtaining their own weapons, with Iran now playing catch-up. In fact, one could argue that the more plutonium that is consumed in reactors for pollution-free electrical generation, the less is availble for weapons proliferation.

WISE - NIRS are wrong again.


Paul Primavera
Jim Hopf said…
It's unclear that increased use of nuclear power in the developing world will have any tangible effect on weapons proliferation. Increased use of nuclear power in developed nations like the US will definitely have no effect on proliferation.

As pointed out earlier, there is an effectively infinite supply of fissile material laying around; enough to make thousands of weapons (hypothetically). This will not change whether we greatly expand nuclear power or if we were to completely walk away from it tomorrow. As history clearly shows, however, the quantity of material does not govern the speed or likelihood of proliferation.

Spent fuel is no more useful than raw uranium ore, with respect to making a weapon. The technical challenges (and diffculty in hiding facilities) of reprocessing and extracting plutonium are as great or greater than the challenges associated with uranium enrichment.

No one has ever tried to heist spent fuel material from a developed nation, and separate out the plutonium, as this is the single most difficult way to obtain that material that has ever been imagined. Instead, all such states have built their own reactors or have enriched their own ore. Spent fuel (or HLW)stockpiles in nations using commercial nuclear power have never contributed to proliferation.

The answers seem clear. If you don't want proliferation, don't sell fuel cycle (enrichment or reprocessing) technologies to nations you wouldn't want having a bomb. Limiting the number of fuel cycle facilities (as is now recommended by the IAEA), along with not using HEU in research reactors, and securing Russia's fissile material, will remove the vast majority (> 90%) of the overall proloferation risk.

Proliferation experts have agreed for some time now that reactors (even in places like Iran) are not the real problem. Only fuel cycle facilities are. The MOST one would consider doing, in the name of proliferation, would be to limit the introduction of nuclear power to smaller, less-developed states. Increased use of nuclear power in developed nations (or nations that already use it), however, is simply not an issue.
Paul said…
Why heist nuclear waste when you can hoist into the atmosphere of an enemy country.

This is precisely the concern of the National Acadamy of Sciences April 2005 report "Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage" and their analysis that current storage is vulnerable to attack.

Proliferation should be seen not only in the context of making more weapons grade material available globally but also in predeployed weapons of mass destruction, namely, reactor cores, spent fuel pools and unprotected spent fuel storage casks.

Paul, NIRS
Brian Mays said…
So, we've gone from a "nuclear weapons race" in Africa to the possibility of a terrorist attack. Why is it, when the debate over nuclear safety and proliferation becomes really heated, the bogeyman of terrorism always rears his ugly head as the fallback option?

We can quibble about the details of security until we're blue in the face, but the truth of the matter is that, from a terrorist's point of view, nuclear power plants are a hard target. If the goal is to cause death, destruction, and mayhem, there are far easier targets, which are readily available to a terrorist, than a nuclear power plant.

Using the same logic that has been applied here to chastise nuclear power, there should be a huge outcry to put an end to a technology that routinely dumps carcinogenic substances high into the atmosphere and exposes millions of people to excessively high levels of radiation each day as part of normal operation, that kills hundreds of people each year through accidents, and that already has been used as the weapon of choice by terrorists to kill almost 3,000 people. Yet, organizations that tout "public safety" as their primary goal do not call for the end of commercial passenger aviation. Why is that?
Jim Hopf said…
Brian is right on about nukes being hard targets. There are innumerate other targets in the US (chemical/petrochemical plants, LNG terminals, dams, skyscrapers, population centers, etc...) that, for any given level of terrorist firepower/capability, offer an infinitely greater chance of attack success, and ALSO have far greater potential consequences.

Nuclear plants can withstand a jetliner crash, and the chances of success for any other type of attack are extremely low. The worst-case consequences (of even a successful attack) are far lower than everyone fears. Any potential release will be far smaller than Chernobyl, which studies now show resulted in on the order of a few thousand eventual deaths, at the very most (more likely less than 100).

Storage casks are also immune to airliners, truck bombs, and most other forms of attack. A successful strike with an armor-piercing round may penetrate the cask, but even this would only result in a local cleanup operation, and would be unlikely to cause any deaths at all in the population living around the plant.

As far as (BWR) spent fuel pools go, studies which predict calamitous consequences of a pool-drain (and fire) event are based upon absurdly unrealistic radionuclide release fractions, as well as overly-conservative assumptions on the effects of low-level radiation. It is also quite doubtful, frankly, that a cladding fire would ever occur, at ANY pool, even in the event of full drainage. The fire prediction is based on thermal analysis which also make unrealistically conservative (and simplistic) assumptions. In any event, the fuel in the pool would take very long to heat up, and all one has to do is spray water over it to avoid any chance at all of cladding fire, or any significant radiation release.

The NAS study Paul refers to actually made a point of this; complaining that the pool thermal analyses are unrealistically conservative. They requested more accurate analyses.

In general, the conclusions of the NAS report have been misrepresented and exagerrated. All they said was that for a few of the pools, more detailed analyses should be performed. All NAS suggested was that IF these analyses found a problem, for a given individual pool, certain low cost measures (such as redistributing the fuel to spread out the heat load, or installing automatic water spray systems) should be taken, as a precautionary measure. They did NOT suggest that a large radiation release was at all likely, even in the effect of a successful strike.

It should also be pointed out that this whole issue does not even apply to PWRs, or to any of the new plant designs (whose spent fuel pools are below ground, and are therefore impossible to hit, and also impossible to drain).

More generally, it must be pointed out that absolutely none of these potential terrorist attack events have any chance of producing anywhere near the health effects (casualties) that are inflicted EVERY YEAR by fossil plants. These plants are estimated to cause ~25,000 premature deaths every single year, in addition to being the largest single cause of global warming. This annual cost is at least an order of magnitude more than that which could occur from a worst-case accident or terrorist attack on any part of a nuclear plant.

Western nuclear power has never had any measurable effect at all on public health or the environment, over its entire 40-year history. The record speaks for itself.
Paul said…
Brian and Jim,

Try as you may, you are not going to successfully trivialize the security threat from commercial nuclear power stations and the current vulnerability of the "civilian" nuclear waste stream to attack and its clandestine or open transfer into nuclear weapons production.

As far as "unrealistic radionuclide release fractions..."

Don't forget that both the NRC in a NUREG dated January 2001 (pre 9-11) and the NAS study April 2005 (post 9-11) analyzed the Zircoloy fuel fire from a drain down of a Mark I BWR fuel pool. Doesn't disturb you in the slightest that Chicago has 6 of these infernal elevated storage ponds with thousands of tons of HLRW perched atop the reactor building under sheet metal roofs?

Only the blind or the biased could disregard or trivialize the consequences.

Onward into the fog, gentlemen,

Paul, NIRS
Brian Mays said…

By "trivialize," I assume that you mean that we provide additional information and place it in its proper context, since that is exactly what we have done. If you have issues with the information being provided, then please focus your rebuttal on the information itself.

If we do not provide such clarifications and additional information, then all that is left are rather short, vague assertions, given by you and others like you, which are presented out of context with the sole intention of causing fear in those who are not familiar with the issues being discussed. (Did someone mention fog?) The blatant hyperbole that fills your comments posted here speaks for itself. I leave it to the readers of this BLOG to draw their own conclusions.

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