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Bush Administration to Back Reprocessing

From today's Wall Street Journal (free feature):
The Bush administration plans to announce a $250 million initiative to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, a first step toward reversing a 1970s policy that rejected reprocessing as too dangerous to pursue.

The administration's decision to put the money into its fiscal 2007 budget to test new technologies is part of an effort to jump-start the nuclear-power industry at a time when energy prices are high and concerns about global warming make nuclear power plants more acceptable.

According to nuclear industry officials and others briefed on the proposal in recent weeks, the program could be announced as early as next week in President Bush's State of the Union address. If the technology works, it could vastly reduce the amount of spent nuclear waste that would have to be buried in underground storage, such as at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, set to open after 2012.
More later.

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Jim Hopf said…
I’m not sure what my feelings are on this proposal. I’m all for increasing funding for long term fuel cycle and waste management research, but rushing into reprocessing (especially if that means settling for PUREX) would be a huge mistake. Any reprocessing technology that does not reduce the heat/bulk of the final waste stream enough to avoid ever having to build multiple repositories (such as PUREX) is simply not worth pursuing. It must be stressed that, since Yucca is able to take all the existing reactors waste (even assuming 60 years of operation), and because new reactors are not coming on line until ~2015 (most after ~2020), we don’t need to start reprocessing until ~2050 in order to avoid additional repositories. We shouldn’t be rushing to deploy inferior reprocessing technologies before then.

As far as UREX+ is concerned, will this require the use of exotic reactors? If so, how many? Does it have to be a significant fraction of overall nuclear capacity, or will a few GWe worth of (say, fast reactors) do the job. What is the consequence of a sub-optimal ratio of reactor types? They stated that UREX+ could reduce waste bulk/heat by a factor of 100. How great a reduction could be achieved if fast reactor capacity were limited to, say ~5% of LWR capacity? Could you still get a factor of ~10 reduction (which would still be enough to avoid additional repositories, at least in this century). They mentioned a system that focused on separating out individual isotopes for separate treatment. Some (like 90Sr) could be surface decayed. Perhaps this technology would allow strategic use of limited non-LWR reactor resources (which could be employed at govt. sites).

I bring all this up because I am very wary of grandiose plans/schemes that require complete, long-term central planning (by government, basically) of the entire nuclear enterprise. A “100-Year Plan”!! Puts the Soviet’s old 5-Year Plans to shame! This plays right into the anti’s argument that nuclear is fundamentally a large scale, government, socialized enterprise that could never survive under a liberalized, free market system. For nuclear to thrive, individual companies and/or communities have to be allowed to make individual decisions, and be able to build a reactor whenever they want, wherever they want, and of whatever type they want (i.e., what most meets their needs and is lowest cost, basically). The government’s waste management program simply has to take whatever waste results, period. You can develop whatever reprocessing technology you want, but having the waste management system dictate what reactor types people may build is letting the tail wag the dog, and will greatly diminish the success/expansion of nuclear. Any future waste processing plan should have to address the possibility of a future commercial plant fleet that is virtually all LWRs. (Assuming that the LWRs would use MOX fuel would be acceptable.)
Jim Hopf said…
More on the proposal/article:

My reaction to the concept of importing other countries’ waste (for reprocessing) is; “Great, after all our successful efforts to build public support for nuclear in this country…”.

Talking about this possibility, especially at this premature date, is a huge political loser for the industry, right at this critical juncture. One step at a time, guys. Before proposing grandiose schemes, we need to strive for simpler accomplishments, like restarting the industry and getting some new plants (LWRs) built. In addition to being extremely unpopular, this proposal carries the implied suggestion that nuclear power has these huge proliferation risks, that are so bad that we will have no choice but to take other countries nuclear waste if we proceed down the nuclear path. The fact is, commercial nuclear power has few, if any, real proliferation risks, especially if one does not insist upon every single tiny, undeveloped country having a nuclear program. We should focus on getting nuclear re-established in the developed world first, before trying to solve the developing world’s problems.

Another annoyance was the reference to “Energy Department Officials” being worried about nuclear waste stores at several sites relatively near to large cities. Who are these “officials”, and what exactly are they trying to accomplish? Yes, we need to push for centralized storage (Yucca Mtn.), but resorting to scaremongering (to counter that of the anti’s) will be counterproductive in the long run, as it serves to amplify the public’s nuclear fears. The fact is that no event (accident or attack) involving dry storage casks, or even spent fuel pools, could have any significant effect on any major city. The cities are simply too far away, by a wide margin. Effects (if any) would be limited to the local area.
Anonymous said…
Why not have the government return to the utilities the $24 billion that has so far been paid for a national geological repository owned and managed by the Federal Government, and tell the utilities to solve their own waste problem? Also include in such a bill before Congress a requirement for coal and natural gas plants to secure and safely dispose of their waste, too, including COx, SOx, NOx, mercury, etc. In that way government involvement in nuclear power generation can be removed, the regulatory playing field leveled among the different types of electricity generators, and the Free Market can decide on what's the best, most economical path to take. Of course, this means that anti-nukes can't be permitted obstruct progress on local spent fuel repositories or local spent fuel reprocessing facilities indefinitely when safety reviews verify compliance with applicable regulation, especially because such obstruction hinders the Free Market system with no added value to public health and safety.

I really like what Rod Adams writes about this issue at:

Yucca Mountain:
Right Answer; Wrong Question

Common myths . . .Is Nuclear Waste A Huge Problem?


Paul W. Primavera
Anonymous said…
What is UREX+? How different is that from Purex? Although UREX+ is said to be for extracting uranium from spent fuel, MOX fuel is recycled to LWR and uranium is storaged, according the recycle scheme published.

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