For Immediate Release
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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.
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.
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
- 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.
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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://184.108.40.206/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.