Archive for March 1st, 2010

Nuclear energy is becoming a hotly debated issue in America with President Obama’s recent announcement that he will advocate expansion of construction of new clean and safe nuclear power plants. In a move calculated to garner Republican support for cap and trade energy legislation, at risk of alienation the leftist ‘green’ elements within his coalition, Obama is tripling public financing for new nuclear power plants through Department of Energy federal loan guarantees in the amount of $54.5 billion.

The Obama administration has also appointed members of a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. Of course Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s only option for a geologic repository of high-level nuclear waste over 23 years ago. Without Yucca Mountain, which appears mired in politics nuclear waste remains stored at various reactor sites above ground. Obama has opposed the Yucca Mountain project for storing spent nuclear fuel (SNF).

America should examine how other countries are expanding their nuclear capacities while concurrently addressing concerns about nuclear waste reduction and geologic repositories space reduction. In North America 103 reactors provide 20 per cent of our electricity.

The debate is not merely an exercise in confronting the irrational fears of Nimby-ism or the stridency of ‘green’ anti-nuke reactionaries. The social and economic aspects of the nuclear debate force policymakers to keep the general public duly informed based upon the best science available to minimize nuclear fear-mongering whether fear of terrorists or nuclear accidents.

Albert Einstein, father of atomic energy, said after Hiroshima that “To the village square we must carry the facts of atomic energy; from there must come America’s voice.”

How much nuclear waste do American nuclear reactors produce? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, civilian nuclear reactors have produced more than 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel, about enough to cover one football field four yards deep. By the end of 2010, DOE expects this figure to exceed 60,000 metric tons. U.S. nuclear waste policy since the 1970s has been that nuclear fuel is used once in a reactor and then permanently disposed of in long-term storage, referred to as the “once through” fuel cycle.

Associate laboratory director for Engineering Research at Argonne National Labs, John Sackett acknowledges that “recent studies indicate that the main constraint on expanding nuclear power over the next 50 years will be a shortage of repositories to hold nuclear waste.” In response to this challenge the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) will develop fuel recycling technologies to reduce the amount and toxicity of reactor waste.

Presidential discretion has always played a dominant role in setting nuclear policy in America. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter lead America to officially ban reprocessing of spent fuel because he feared that terrorists would have access to recycled plutonium to make bombs.

But today’s U.S. Department of Energy engineers claim technology is available to make reprocessing SNF more resistant to terrorist misuse, thereby mitigating those prior concerns. In 2010 it is incumbent on policy-setters to review what type of clean nuclear power plants should be constructed and what type of reprocessing solutions should be implemented.

On June 17, 2009, the House Science and Technology committee held a hearing on “Advancing Technology for Nuclear Fuel Recycling: What Should Our Research, Development and Demonstration Strategy Be?” Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) opened the hearing by stating that although America currently enjoys a reliable ‘baseload’ for electricity we need to consider reprocessing so “U.S. nuclear power can expand to spent nuclear fuel as uranium resources become scarcer .” The hearing explored the status of nuclear waste recycling and also discussed the safety, environmental, security and economic issues related to nuclear waste reprocessing strategy.

Witnesses at the hearing confirmed that only a small portion of the energy potential in nuclear fuel is used during the “once through” fuel cycle. When recycled, the spent fuel is processed to separate waste materials so that the fissionable uranium and plutonium can be recycled into new fuel. This is referred to as the “closed” fuel cycle.

Not only does this reuse allow producers to extract more energy from the given supply of natural uranium, it also saves space in an underground repository.

At the hearing Dr. Mark Peters representing Argonne National Laboratory testified to the need for effective nuclear waste management in the U.S. as demand for nuclear energy increases. He testified that while nuclear energy is an abundant, and carbon-free source of electricity for the United States it will be necessary to close the fuel cycle to expand nuclear power capacity.

Dr. Alan Hanson of Areva, Inc., the manager of France’s reprocessing operations, testified that recycling fuel would decrease high-level waste by 75 percent it would increase low-level waste, but this would only be a 2.5 percent increase. And low-level waste does not have the same storage constraints.

President Obama might want to review the nuclear positions of his predecessors in more depth to avoid mere political posturing to sell legislation.

The same Areva re-engineered the French fuel assembly plant at Marcoule, originally designed to support a breeder reactor, to instead produce plutonium-enriched fuel elements for conventional reactors. In 1996, Areva blended plutonium and SNF, in a ratio of 8 percent to 92 percent, creating so-called mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel, which can be substituted for enriched uranium fuel in a conventional nuclear reactor. In 2010, MOX fuel provides 10 percent of France’s nuclear power generation and is also used in Belgium, Germany, Japan, and Switzerland.

President Bill Clinton’s Energy Department in 1997 authorized the fabrication of surplus weapons-grade plutonium into MOX fuel for use in U.S. power plants. Clinton also awarded a contract to an Areva-led consortium to build a MOX fabrication plant at the DOE’s Savannah River, S.C., site. President Bush’s first energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, gave Areva permission to create fuel assemblies currently producing power at Duke Power’s Catawba, S.C., plant since 2008.

After President Bush’s endorsement of nuclear reprocessing in 2008, DOE began to lobby Congress to follow-through with full integration of plutonium into the U.S. nuclear industry by creation of a SNF reprocessing demonstration plant. In May 2009 the DOE’s Spent Nuclear Fuel Recycling Program Plan was sent to Congress calling for a demonstration of a breeder reactor fueled by Urex+, a recycled SNF. Just like France’s nuclear fuel cycle, the DOE plan accepts the reality that new breeder reactors must be built to process high-level transuranic waste left as a residual from MOX production.

Nobel laureate Burton Richter, who leads the DOE’s science panel on nuclear waste separations believes breeder reactors are DOE’s ultimate solution “Everybody is in agreement that the right system ultimately results in multiple recycles in fast [breeder] reactors, so that’s where things are going,” according to Richter .

In the nuclear reprocessing procedure in France , SNF upon its removal from French reactors, is packed in containers and safely shipped via train and road to the reprocessing facility in La Hague. The energy producing uranium and plutonium are removed and separated from the other waste and made into new fuel that can be used again. The French project added costs at only 6 percent. Anti-nuclear fear-mongering has proved baseless. The French have recycled fuel like this for 30 years with no terrorist attack, accidental explosions nor contribution toward nuclear weapons proliferation. And France meets all of its nuclear reprocessing needs with one facility
which reprocesses French SNF in one half of the facility’s capacity, and uses the other half to recycle other countries’ spent nuclear fuel.

In conclusion, Phillip Finck, a nuclear engineer at Argonne National Laboratory has stated “If we do reprocessing and recycle, we can increase the capacity of a Yucca Mountain 100-fold.” With American nuclear policy held hostage by geologic repository politics, this strategy will stave off need for additional abortive Yucca Mountain projects.

But if President Obama wants to support expansion of nuclear capacity for real he will consider the case for breeder reactors for extraction of new fuels by effective management of reprocessing of spent fuels. Without breeder reactors, reprocessing will fail. Unless breeder reactors are commercialized that can truly burn up all the residual fissile material found in spent fuels, reprocessing will simply exchanging one high-level nuclear waste for another.

The following articles review the challenges and benefits of pursuing a comprehensive Spent Nuclear Fuel reprocessing strategy to enhance nuclear capacity by capturing ‘wasted’ nuclear waste for new fuel, and developing the next generation of breeder reactors capable of recycling the residue left from the reprocessing operations.

House Science and Technology Committee Hearing on “Advancing Technology for Nuclear Fuel Recycling: What Should Our Research, Development and Demonstration Strategy Be?”
June 17, 2009
Summary of Testimony of Witnesses at June 17, 2009 Hearing U.S. House Science and Technology Committee.

Actual Prepared Testimony Mark T. Peters, Argonne National Laboratory

Click to access Peters_Testimony.pdf

To maximize the benefits of nuclear energy in an expanding nuclear energy future, it will ultimately be necessary to close the fuel cycle.

Actual Prepared Testimony Dr. Alan S. Hanson Executive Vice President,Technology and Used Fuel Management, AREVA NC Inc.

Click to access Hanson_Testimony.pdf

Dr. Hanson confirms that the volume of material destined for the high-level waste repository is reduced by at least 75 percent through recycling.

Actual Prepared Testimony Lisa Price, Lisa Price
Senior Vice President, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy Americas LLC and Chief Executive Officer of Global Nuclear Fuel, LLC

Click to access Price_Testimony.pdf

CEO advocates re-fissioning the recycled fuel in a sodium-cooled breeder reactor to produce
electricity, implementation of closed cycle instead of ‘once through’ system.

Actual Prepared Testimony Dr. Charles D. Ferguson,Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, Council on Foreign Relations

Click to access Ferguson_Testimony.pdf

A CFR Perspective Which states that since other countries may venture into reprocessing it is imperative for the United States to reevaluate its policies and redouble its efforts to prevent the further spread of reprocessing plants to non-nuclear-weapon states.

Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: U.S. Policy Development
Anthony Andrews, Specialist in Industrial Engineering and Infrastructure Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division

Click to access RS22542.pdf

The Department of Energy now proposes a new generation of “proliferation-resistant” reactor and reprocessing technology.

Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste By William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford, 2005 Scientific American

Click to access NuclearFastReactorsSA1205.pdf

Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste Fast-neutron reactors could extract much more energy from recycled nuclear fuel, minimize the risks of weapons proliferation, and markedly reduce
the time nuclear waste must be isolated

Obama Budget Abandons Yucca Mountain
Drew Thornley ,Environment & Climate News / The Heartland Institute / May 01, 2009
In a significant energy policy redirection, the Obama administration appears poised to pull the plug on funds for permanent nuclear waste storage at Yucca

Ironically, NIMBY Results in Opposite Effect, by Clinton E. Crackel
Environment & Climate News / The Heartland Institute / November 01, 2009
Department of Energy administrator examines fallacy of “Not In My Back Yard” syndrome.

Better Nuclear Waste Management Needed by Clinton E. Crackel
Environment & Climate News / The Heartland Institute / November 01, 2008
DOE administrator examines rationale behind Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) request for the United States to build 45 more nuclear power plants as a means of reducing foreign energy dependence.

Nuclear Energy Past, Present and Future, by Dr. Jay Lehr, Heartland Institute Science Director
Environment & Climate News /The Heartland Institute / December 01, 2009
Dr. Lehr contends that unlike some applications of nuclear technology, the process of generating electricity in a nuclear power plant is not rocket science.

If you have any questions about this issue , you may contact me at 312/377-4000 or ralph_conner@yahoo.com

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