French-Style Nuclear Reprocessing Will Not Solve U.S. Nuclear Waste Problems

For Immediate Release

Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER)
Contact: 

Ailis Aaron Wolf, for IEER, (703) 276-3265 or aawolf@hastingsgroup.com.

French-Style Nuclear Reprocessing Will Not Solve U.S. Nuclear Waste Problems

France Uses Less than 1 Percent of the Natural Uranium Resource, Has Higher Waste Volume; Reprocessing Still Requires a Repository and Increases Costs, Proliferation Risks

TAKOMA PARK, Md. - Contrary to some prevailing opinion, reprocessing would not eliminate
the need for a deep geologic disposal program to replace Yucca
Mountain. It aggravates waste, proliferation, and cost problems. The
volume of waste to be disposed of in deep geologic repository is
increased about six times on a life-cycle basis in the French approach
compared to the once-through no-reprocessing approach of the United States.

A new report by the
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), a nonprofit
scientific research group, shows that France
uses less than 1 percent of the natural uranium resource, contrary to
an impression among some policy makers. The report has several
recommendations for President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on
America's Nuclear Future, which was created to address U.S. nuclear
waste issues after the administration's cancellation of the Yucca
Mountain program.

IEER President Dr. Arjun Makhijani, the author of the report: "In
recent years, a 'French fever' has gripped the promoters of nuclear
power in the United States. Praise of France's management of spent fuel by
reprocessing, including its use of the extracted plutonium as fuel in
its nuclear power reactors, is now routinely heard. But it is a fantasy
on the scale of the 1950s "too cheap to meter" mythology about nuclear
power to imagine that 90 or 95 percent of the "energy value" of U.S.
spent fuel can be extracted by reprocessing."

Key IEER report
findings include the following:

  • On a life-cycle basis, French-style
    reprocessing and recycle increases the volume of waste that would have
    to disposed of in a geologic repository.
    Reprocessing results in
    high-level radioactive waste and large volumes of Greater than
    Class C waste, both of which must be managed by deep geologic disposal.
    Their combined volume on a life-cycle basis is estimated to be about
    six times more than the no-reprocessing approach that is current
    U.S. policy, according to Department of Energy estimates.
    Low-level waste volume and waste transportation shipments are also
    estimated to increase several-fold.
  • France
    spends about two cents per kilowatt-hour
    more for electricity generated from reprocessed plutonium compared to
    that generated from fresh uranium fuel
    .
  • Attempting to
    combined reprocessing with breeder reactors to convert uranium in U.S.
    spent fuel in plutonium will create intolerable costs and risks.
    Reprocessing
    plus breeder reactors are much more expensive than light water
    reactors today, which are themselves expensive. Such a system is required
    to convert most of the uranium in spent fuel into a reactor fuel. Even a
    single penny in excess generation cost per kilowatt-hour in a
    breeder reactor-reprocessing system would lead to an added $8 trillion in costs to convert nearly all of
    the uranium in the 100,000 metric tons of U.S. spent into usable
    fuel. It would take hundreds of years to accomplish the task and require
    separation of tens of thousands of bombs equivalent of fissile
    material each year. The proliferation risks will be far greater
    than today.
  • Adoption of French-style reprocessing program
    would not eliminate the need for a deep geologic repository.
    Even
    complete fissioning of all actinides - an unrealistic proposition - will
    leave behind large amounts of very long-lived fission and
    activation products like iodine-129, cesium-135, and chlorine-36
    that will pose risks far into the future -- much beyond the 24,100-year
    half-life of plutonium-239. In fact, France
    needs a geologic repository and opposition to one has been intense there.
    The French appear to dislike nuclear waste in their backyards as much
    as people in the United States.
  • Proliferation risks
    are inherently part of the French (and any other) approach to
    reprocessing.
    Even advanced reprocessing technologies will not
    significantly reduce proliferation risks. For instance a study authored
    by scientists from DOE laboratories, including Los Alamos and Sandia,
    concluded that it would take only a few days or a few weeks for
    proliferant country to make material for nuclear bombs once it had
    reprocessing plants. It found that new technologies, including
    electrometallurgical processing, resulted in "only a modest improvement
    in reducing proliferation risk over existing PUREX technologies and
    these modest improvements apply primarily for non-state actors." The
    IEER report concluded that electrometallurgical increases risks in other
    ways. For instance, it is far less difficult to conceal a plant than
    the present PUREX technology.

Other key findings
include the following:

  • Six decades of sodium cooled
    breeder reactor development has so far resulted in failure.
    Historical
    experience indicates no learning curve for the sodium cooled fast
    breeder reactor, which is the breeder technology that has received the
    most development. In fact, the two most recent large scale demonstration
    reactors, Superphénix in France and
    Monju in Japan, have been failures.
    Superphénix had a cumulative capacity factor of less than 8 percent
    before it was shut. Monju has been closed for almost 15 years, following
    a sodium fire, and has not generated a significant amount of
    electricity. Sodium cooled breeder reactors are not commercial today
    despite global expenditures on the order of $100
    billion over six decades. They face a host of safety,
    proliferation and cost hurdles to overcome, some arising from the fact
    that they use liquid sodium for cooling. They are unlikely to be
    commercial in the near future. For instance, Japan's
    estimated date for commercialization of the sodium cooled fast breeder
    is 2050.
  • Storage of liquid high-level wastes creates some
    risk of catastrophic releases of radioactivity.
    For instance, the
    Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority has estimated that a severe
    accident at the liquid waste storage facility in Sellafield, Britain, could result in cesium-137
    contamination between 10 percent and 5,000 percent of that created in Norway by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor
    accident, which is the worst commercial accident to date, by far. A
    catastrophic release of radioactivity from a military high-level waste
    tank occurred in the Soviet Union in
    1957.
  • Using more than 1 percent of the uranium resource in a
    light water reactor system is technically impossible even with
    reprocessing and re-enrichment.
    In light water reactor systems,
    almost all the uranium resource winds up as depleted uranium or in spent
    fuel. Even with repeated reprocessing and re-enrichment, use of the
    natural uranium resource cannot be increased to more than 1 percent in
    such a system. A corollary is that the use of 90 to 95 percent of the
    uranium resource or of the material in the spent fuel is impossible in a
    light water reactor system even with reprocessing.

These are physical
constraints that go with the system and also apply to France's system.

The IEER report also
sets out a number of recommendations for the Blue Ribbon Commission on

America's Nuclear
Future appointed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu:

  • Spent fuel from existing reactors
    should be slated for direct geologic disposal without reprocessing of
    any kind; a suitable path for a scientifically sound program should be
    set forth.
  • In the interim, spent fuel should be stored on site
    as safely as possible - in low density configurations while in pools and
    in hardened storage when moved to dry casks.
  • Breeder reactors
    and reprocessing are not commercial after six decades of development of
    sodium cooled breeder reactors, and enormous expenditures. Given the
    long time frame for commercialization estimated even by some promoters,
    the proliferation risks, and efforts already made, it does not appear to
    be a good investment to spend more R&D money in that direction.
    Rather energy supply R&D resources should be focused on development
    and deployment of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency.
  • The
    Commission should request the French company AREVA and/or the French
    government to supply it with data on the present use of the natural
    uranium resource purchased for French nuclear reactors, including,
    specifically, the increases in fission fraction that have actually been
    achieved by reprocessing and recycling.
  • The Commission should
    also request official data on Greater than Class C waste equivalent
    expected to be generated on a life-cycle basis in France, and the total volumes and heat
    generation of packaged waste expected to be disposed of in a deep
    geologic repository, including estimates of decommissioning waste.
  • The
    Commission should investigate the public support or lack thereof for
    repository programs in France and Britain, the countries with the longest
    history of commercial spent fuel reprocessing.
  • The Commission
    should make the same requests regarding the British reprocessing
    program.
  • Official analyses of the mechanisms, probability, and
    consequences of large accidental releases of radioactivity to the
    atmosphere from liquid high-level waste storage in tanks should be
    requested from the French and British governments.
###

On March 24, 2010, IEER held a news conference to release documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) showing that the outgoing Bush Administration inked 11th-hour agreements with more than a dozen utilities involving 21 proposed nuclear reactors. As IEER noted, between the output of existing commercial nuclear reactors and the 21 proposed nuclear reactors covered by the agreements quietly signed by the outgoing Bush Administration, the U.S. already has agreed to store enough spent (used) reactor fuel to fill the equivalent of not one, but two, Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste repositories. For more information on the March 24th news event, go to http://216.250.243.12/ieer/032410.cfm.

The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research provides policy-makers, journalists, and the public with understandable and accurate scientific and technical information on energy and environmental issues. IEER's aim is to bring scientific excellence to public policy issues in order to promote the democratization of science and a safer, healthier environment.

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