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It's time to reprocess spent nuclear fuel

Rokkasho plant
REUTERS/KYODO
The reprocessing plant at Rokkasho will serve to reuse the very valuable plutonium 239 (Pu 239) fuel and to recycle the uranium, thus extending the world’s nuclear fuel supplies.

Little noticed in the attention paid to Japan’s nuclear crisis at Fukushima is Japan’s plan to open its long-planned nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho in 2013. Japan would then join France as the world’s only large-scale processors of spent-nuclear-fuel waste from commercial nuclear power plants.

This news has caused some major media news outlets to express the old fears that recovered plutonium in reprocessing could be captured by terrorists for use in a nuclear weapon. But that plutonium is not weapons grade and won’t work in a nuclear bomb.

A major purpose for reprocessing, as France does at La Hague, is to both reuse the very valuable plutonium 239 (Pu 239) fuel and to recycle the uranium, thus extending the world’s nuclear fuel supplies. 

Reduce storage requirement

The other important purpose is to greatly reduce the radioactive-spent-fuel storage requirement. Only the radioactive 5 percent fission products in those spent fuel capsules needs to be stored. The other 95 percent can be separated and returned to the new fuel production processes.

All commercial nuclear reactors produce fissionable Pu 239 from non-fissionable U 238 while they are operating. That Pu 239 joins fissionable U235, and both are burned as the reactor’s fuel supply. After five years the spent fuel capsules contain about 1 percent fissionable U 235 and 1 percent reactor grade Pu 239, just not enough in total to sustain the reaction. The racks containing those spent fuel capsules are removed and replaced with fresh fuel.

But during those five years of operation, the produced plutonium builds up other isotopes, like Pu 238, 240,  241, and 242. These essentially prevent its use in a nuclear weapon, but there is still enough of the desirable Pu 239 for that plutonium to be usable as power-plant fuel. 

The spent fuel capsule is 2 percent plutonium/uranium fuel; 93 percent uranium 238 and about 5 percent dangerous fission products. It’s only that 5 percent that needs to be safely stored. In France, those fission products are vitrified in glass cylinders, and all of the cylinders from 58 operating reactors are stored in the floors of a few large rooms at La Hague.  The United States has a growing 60,000 tons of radioactive spent fuel racks in storage pools and  storage casks waiting for the now canceled Yucca Mountain storage facility.

Nuclear weapons programs use specialized plutonium production reactors, which are designed to be turned off frequently. This allows retrieval of the weapons-grade Pu 239 before many of the other isotopes build up. Commercial nuclear reactors do a 4-5 week shut down just once every two years for partial refueling and maintenance. This allows the buildup of multiple plutonium isotopes, producing 60-70 percent Pu 239, not the 90+ percent needed for a bomb.

Constant stopping and starting of commercial nuclear plants is not practical and is easily detected. Commercial nuclear power plants with their 4 percent U 235 and reactor-grade-only plutonium have no role in nuclear weapons programs.

Reprocessing's benefits

Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel extends the supply of our uranium resources and reduces the spent-fuel storage requirement. The world’s economically recoverable uranium resource is not all that plentiful, and radioactive-spent-fuel storage is a looming global crisis.

Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is the future as we seek to increase energy supply and reduce atmospheric pollution with non-carbon electric power.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and the American Nuclear Society. He teaches classes on energy for the University of Minnesota’s Lifelong Learning program, including the fall quarter class “Update on Fukushima and the Iran Nuclear Program.”

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Comments (12)

So what are we waiting for?

Sounds like a sensible solution. Something has to be done about the spent fuel. But is taking the spent fuel from the reactor so simple a task? Are there any risks in removing the spent fuel from their reactor beds? And how does one deal with the fuel once it's removed? How is it transported? Are you suggesting building reprocessing plants alongside each nuclear reactor facility?

Sounds sensible

However, there seems to be little interest in seriously dealing with the spent nuclear fuel issue, even by the relatively nuke-friendly Obama administration. Another can, kicked further down that road.

Nuke friendly?

The Administration closed down the Yucca Mountain project leaving no place to store spent fuel. Without a place to store spent fuel, no new projects will be allowed to start. As a result the Administration has effectively and quickly killed any future nuclear power plants for at least a decade or two.

Saving Yucca Mountain

Right on, Tom. Trashing Yucca Mountain is a major mistake. .

Not simple

The spent fuel reprocessing plant is expensive and complex as material has to be handled robotically, etc. But it is doable, and much of the cost is saved by recovered fuel. The big benefits are in the whole storage issue and fuel recovery.
There are still large reserves of difficult to retrieve fossil fuels, but eventually those will also be gone. Wind and solar have fundamental limitations, as do bio fuels. What's left is nuclear binding energy - millions of times more potent, ounce for ounce, than fossil fuels.

nuclear waste

Have the French really solved the problem? My understanding is that they are dumping radioactive materials into North Sea. Sorry, don't remember the source for that info.

Dumping in the sea

To my knowledge the French are not dumping radioactive material into the sea.
However, that is not a bad idea for some disposal. The material would rapidly dilute. The seas already contain millions of tons of radioactive uranium and it doesn't hurt us.
The entire Colorado River basin also has lots of radioactive minerals, some water soluble. When it rains, that radioactive stuff goes into the river. The water heads south and two giant straws take it for Las Vegas people to drink, cook and wash clothes with it. And it doesn't hurt them because it is dilute and small amounts of radiation are not harmful.

Reprocessing nuclear

Great article. It is high times to get over the baby boomer petulant, neurotic opposition to nuclear power, and expand it to our primary energy source for electricity, including high speed trains. the rest of the world is way ahead of US.

This article significantly

This article significantly misrepresents reprocessing technology, Contrary to what is stated, reprocessing increases the total volume of the highest level waste by more than 6 fold when the process is complete according to the US DOEs study of French reprocessing efforts. it is not the case (as you deceptively imply) that all the spent fuel from the 58 French nuclear reactors are In " stored in the floors of a few large rooms at La Hague." In fact tens of thousands of tons of high level radioactive waste from Frances nuclear program is being stored within the country and some of it is leaking. because of the highly toxic chemicals used in the recycling process, this waste is in a more difficult to manage and store liquid form.

Further, contrary to your optimistic numbers, using more than one percent of the uranium resource in a light water reactor system is technically impossible even with reprocessing and re-enrichment.

Reprocess is not economic,as compared with the one pass fresh fuel approach used in the US, adding an estimated 2 cents per kwh to the cost of nuclear power in France.

I would strongly encourage you to read this complete study of the failure of the French reprocessing system, economically and technically before you hype this expensive and ineffective solution. http://www.ieer.org/reports/reprocessing2010.pdf

IEER nonsense

Storing 5% of a capsule does not increase the storage requirement by 6 times. Read my review of the IEER books on Amazon. IEER is a rabid opponent of those 104 reliable US nuclear plants which turn out low cost non polluting energy. Nor sure why. Fortunately, few pay any attention.

From the World Nuclear Association

France chose the closed fuel cycle at the very beginning of its nuclear program, involving reprocessing used fuel so as to recover uranium and plutonium for re-use and to reduce the volume of high-level wastes for disposal. Recycling allows 30% more energy to be extracted from the original uranium and leads to a GREAT REDUCTION in the amount of wastes to be disposed of. Overall the closed fuel cycle cost is assessed as comparable with that for direct disposal of used fuel, and preserves a resource which may become more valuable in the future. Back end services are carried out by Areva NC. Used fuel storage in pools at reactor sites is relatively brief. Late in 2011, 70% of EdF's used fuel was in used fuel pools, mostly at La Hague, 19% was in dry casks and 11% had been reprocessed.

Used fuel from the French reactors and from otehr countries is sent to Areva NC's La Hague plant in Normandy for reprocessing. This has the capacity to reprocess up to 1700 tonnes per year of used fuel in the UP2 and UP3 facilities. The treatment extracts 99.9% of the plutonium and uranium for recycling, leaving 3% of the used fuel material as high-level wastes which are vitrified and stored there for later disposal. Typical input today is 3.7% enriched used fuel from PWR and BWR reactors with burn-up to 45 GWd/t, after cooling for four years. In 2009 Areva reprocessed 929 tonnes, most from EdF, but 79 t from SOGIN in Italy. By 2015 it aims for throughput of 1500 t/yr.

What else is there?

Fossil fuel reserves are still substantial, if increasingly expensive to recover. But their supply is not infinite, and burning them will cook us. Increasing price will force conservation, but in the end it is nuclear energy that has the thousand year energy potential, giving us time to make fundamental change in the way we live with respect to energy.