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Foreign Policy in Focus

Nuclear Recycling Fails the Test

Over the past few years, attention to the recycling of nuclear power spent fuel has grown. Fears of global warming due to fossil fuel burning have given nuclear energy a boost; over the next 15 years dozens of new power reactors are planned world-wide. To promote nuclear energy, the Bush administration is seeking to establish international spent nuclear fuel recycling centers that are supposed to reduce wastes, recycle uranium, and convert nuclear explosive materials, such as plutonium to less troublesome elements in advanced power reactors.

Advocates, such the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, argue that used fuel at U.S. power plants contain enough energy "to power every U.S. household for 12 years." Heritage points out that nuclear recycling "can be affordable and is technologically feasible. The French are proving that on a daily basis. The question is: Why can't oui?"

The key to recycling is being able to reuse materials while reducing pollution, saving money and making the earth a safer place. On all accounts, nuclear recycling fails the test.

Nuclear Recycling and the Environment

In order to recycle uranium and plutonium in power plants, spent fuel has to be treated to chemically separate these elements from other highly radioactive byproducts. As it chops and dissolves used fuel rods, a reprocessing plant releases about 15 thousand times more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear power reactors and generates several dangerous waste streams. If placed in a crowded area, a few grams of waste would deliver lethal radiation doses in a matter of seconds. They also pose enduring threats to the human environment for tens of thousands of years.

In Europe reprocessing has created higher risks and has spread radioactive wastes across international borders. Radiation doses to people living near the Sellefield reprocessing facility in England were found to be 10 times higher than for the general population. Denmark, Norway, and Ireland have sought to close the French and English plants because of their radiological impacts. Discharges of Iodine 129, for example, a very long-lived carcinogen, have contaminated the shores of Denmark and Norway at levels 1000 times higher than nuclear weapons fallout. Health studies indicate that significant excess childhood cancers have occurred near French and English reprocessing plants Experts have not ruled out radiation as a possible cause, despite intense pressure from the nuclear industry to do so.

Nuclear recycling in the U.S. has created in one of the largest environmental legacies in the world. Between the 1940's and the late 1980's, the Department of Energy (DOE) and its predecessors reprocessed tens of thousands of tons of spent fuel in order to reuse uranium and make plutonium for nuclear weapons.

By the end the Cold War about 100 million gallons of high-level radioactive wastes were left in aging tanks that are larger than most state capitol domes. More than a third of some 200 tanks have leaked and threaten water supplies such as the Columbia River. The nation's experience with this mess should serve as a cautionary warning. According to DOE, treatment and disposal will cost more than $100 billion; and after 26 years of trying, the Energy Department has processed less than one percent of the radioactivity in these wastes for disposal. By comparison, the amount of wastes from spent power reactor fuel recycling in the U.S. would dwarf that of the nuclear weapons program - generating about 25 times more radioactivity.

The "Once Through" and "Closed" Nuclear Fuel Cycles

For 30 years the U.S. has refrained from reprocessing commercial spent power reactor fuel to use plutonium in power plants. Instead intact spent fuel rods were to be sent directly to a repository - a "once through" nuclear fuel cycle. Radioactive materials in spent fuel are bound up in ceramic pellets and are encased in durable metal cladding, planned for disposal deep underground in thick shielded casks.

Although the U.S. continued to reprocess spent fuel from military reactors, the "once through" fuel cycle was adopted by President Carter in 1977 for commercial nuclear power. Three years earlier, India had exploded a nuclear weapon using plutonium separated from power reactor spent fuel at a reprocessing facility. President Ford responded in 1976 by suspending reprocessing in the United States. President Carter converted the suspension into a ban, while issuing a strong international policy statement against establishing plutonium as fuel in global commerce. President Carter's decision reversed some 20 years of active promotion by DOE's predecessor, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), of the "closed" nuclear fuel cycle. The AEC had spent billions of dollars in an attempt to commercialize reprocessing technology to recycle uranium and provide plutonium fuel for use in "fast" nuclear power reactors.

Recycling advocates are seeking to overturn this long-standing policy and point to a new generation of "fast" reactors to breakdown plutonium so it can't be used in weapons. Since the 1940's, it was understood that "fast" reactors generate more subatomic particles, known as neutrons, than conventional power plants and it is neutrons which split uranium atoms to produce energy in conventional reactors. The U.S. actively promoted plutonium-fueled fast reactors for decades because of the potential abundance of neutrons, declaring that they held the promise of producing electricity and making up to 30 percent more plutonium than they consumed.

With design changes, fast reactors are, ironically, being touted in the U.S. as a means to get rid of plutonium. However, the experience with "fast reactors" over the past 50 years is laced with failure. At least 15 "fast" reactors have been closed due to costs and accidents in the U.S., France, Germany, England, and Japan. There have been two fast reactor fuel meltdowns in the United States including a mishap near Detroit in the 1960's. Russia operates the remaining fast reactor, but it has experienced 15 serious fires in 23 years.

Plutonium makes up about 1 percent of spent nuclear fuel and is a powerful nuclear explosive, requiring extraordinary safeguards and security to prevent theft and diversion. It took about 6 kilograms to fuel the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki in 1945. Unlike plutonium bound up in highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, separated plutonium does not have a significant radiation barrier to prevent theft and bomb making, especially by terrorists.

Plutonium is currently used in a limited fashion in nuclear energy plants by being blended with uranium. Known as mixed oxide fuel (MOX), it can only be recycled once or twice in a commercial nuclear power plant because of the buildup of radioactive contaminants. According to a report to the French government in 2000, the use of plutonium in existing reactors doubles the cost of disposal.

The unsuccessful history of fast reactors has created a plutonium legacy of major proportions. Of the 370 metric tons of plutonium extracted from power reactor spent fuel over the past several decades, about one third has been used. Currently, about 200 tons of plutonium sits at reprocessing plants around the world - equivalent to the amount in some 30,000 nuclear weapons in global arsenals.

Recycled Uranium

In 2007 the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that "reprocessed uranium currently plays a very minor role in satisfying world uranium requirements for power reactors." In 2004, about 2 percent of uranium reactor fuel in France came from recycling, and it appears that it now has dwindled to zero. There are several reasons for this.

Uranium, which makes up about 95 percent of spent fuel, cannot be reused in the great majority of reactors without increasing the levels of a key source of energy, uranium 235, from 1 to 4 percent, through a complex and expensive enrichment process.

Reprocessed uranium also contains undesirable elements that make it highly radioactive and reduces the efficiency of the fuel. For instance, the build up of uranium 232 and uranium 234 in spent fuel creates a radiation hazard requiring extraordinary measures to protect workers. Levels of uranium-236 in used fuel impede atom splitting; and to compensate for this "poison, recycled uranium has to undergo costly "over-enrichment." Contaminants in reprocessed uranium also foul up enrichment and processing facilities, as well as new fuel. Once it is recycled in a reactor, larger amounts of undesirable elements build up - increasing the expense of reuse, storage and disposal. Given these problems, it's no surprise that DOE plans include disposal of future reprocessed uranium in landfills, instead of recycling.


As a senior energy adviser in the Clinton administration, I recall attending a briefing in 1996 by the National Academy of Sciences on the feasibility of recycling nuclear fuel. I'd been intrigued by the idea because of its promise to eliminate weapons-usable plutonium and to reduce the amount of waste that had to be buried, where it could conceivably seep into drinking water at some point in its multimillion-year-long half-lives.

But then came the Academy's unequivocal conclusion: the idea was supremely impractical. It would cost up to $500 billion in 1996 dollars and take 150 years to accomplish the transmutation of plutonium and other dangerous long-lived radioactive toxins. Ten years later the idea remains as costly and technologically unfeasible as it was in the 1990s. In 2007 the Academy once again tossed cold water on the Bush administration's effort to jump start nuclear recycling by concluding that "there is no economic justification for going forward with this program at anything approaching a commercial scale."

Meanwhile, the client base for Areva, the French nuclear recycling company, has shrunk to one new contract for a relatively small amount of spent fuel from the Netherlands. Most revealing is that its main customer, the French utility, Electricité de France, is balking at doing further business unless the price goes down - something that Areva says it can't do. It appears that even the French may be starting to say no instead of oui.

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Robert Alvarez

Robert Alvarez

Robert Alvarez, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department's secretary and deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment from 1993 to 1999.

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