Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods is being promoted as a better alternative to simply storing the highly radioactive waste from power plants in repositories.
But how viable is reprocessing?
A Deseret Morning News evaluation found that critics say reprocessing is fraught with economic and safety concerns and that reprocessing carried out in Great Britain caused accidents and radioactive leakage. But the technology also has strong support.
Reprocessing is an issue in Utah because EnergySolutions, the Salt Lake City-based nuclear cleanup and disposal company formerly known as Envirocare, supports it. EnergySolutions says reprocessing would reduce the volume of nuclear waste that would need to be stored.
In an April 17 press release, EnergySolutions CEO Steve Creamer said, "Recycling is the right thing to do for America and will make the PFS (Private Fuel Storage) proposal for Utah obsolete," a point also being made in a current series of EnergySolutions TV ads.
PFS would store up to 40,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in an above-ground facility at Skull Valley, Tooele County, for up to 40 years. Meanwhile, the federal government is planning a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
EnergySolutions noted that in March that the U.S. Department of Energy issued a request for parties to submit expressions of interest in a demonstration program for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. GNEP, supported by President Bush, would have advanced countries supply nuclear fuel to other nations.
Under GNEP, the United States would develop technologies to recycle nuclear fuel "that do not result in separated plutonium a key proliferation risk of existing recycling technologies," says a DOE Web site.EnergySolutions recently purchased the American arm of British Nuclear Group, which carries out reprocessing in the United Kingdom. That gave EnergySolutions the American rights to reprocessing technology. Creamer made it clear that any U.S. reprocessing by the company would not take place in Utah.
An expensive process
"The main problem is cost," said Steve Fetter, professor and dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It is expensive to reprocess nuclear fuel."
Fetter, interviewed by telephone, said new uranium is relatively cheap, and plutonium from reprocessing is far more expensive to use in nuclear fuel. With reprocessing, he said, the product has "negative economic value."
To fabricate the uranium and plutonium from reprocessing and use them in fuel is difficult "because plutonium is hazardous. It requires special equipment, a special facility that's very expensive."
Even if the plutonium were free, he said, the cost of using this reprocessed fuel would be greater than buying fresh uranium for the plants.
Cost also is a concern for Frank von Hippel, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University and co-director of Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security.
He said that in the 1960s and '70s, the United States promoted reprocessing but later reversed that stance. That happened after India used reprocessing to separate plutonium from nuclear fuel then used the plutonium for its first nuclear bomb, he said.
Also, he said, America's leaders decided it was not economical to reprocess and recycle plutonium. "That was confirmed by other countries' later experience," von Hippel said in a telephone interview, "countries that didn't stop as quickly as we did."
According to von Hippel, "We're talking in the ballpark of $100 billion for reprocessing and recycling," as well as preparing material for storage. That is the waste already generated, not counting future waste, he said.
"That's probably the low end of the range," von Hippel added.
"Recycling makes good sense for a number of reasons," Greg Hopkins, senior vice president of EnergySolutions, said in response to e-mailed questions.
"When taken on a life-cycle basis, considering the value of energy recovered and the disposal costs saved, it's economic. Recycling will also allow for the increased use of nuclear power for energy generation."
He said that presently, 20 percent of the U.S. power supply is derived from nuclear generation stations.
"There will be reduction in societal costs that are significant, but hard to calculate, with more nuclear generation." More nuclear power could reduce the need to import foreign fuel, resulting in greater energy security and energy independence, he said.Not depending as much on burning fossil fuel means "a reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere," Hopkins said.
Problems in Britain
Serious accidents have plagued nuclear fuel reprocessing in Great Britain.
In May 2005, the British Health Protection Agency's Radiation Protection Division issued a report summing up the risks to the country's population from ionizing radiation from all sources, including medical X-rays. It concluded that risk from non-medical sources were "at a very low level."
The report, "Ionizing Radiation Exposure of the UK Population: 2005 Review" discusses exposure from nuclear fuel reprocessing. Reprocessing is carried out at a plant called Sellafield, located at Cumbria on the Irish Sea. Sellafield is operated by British Nuclear Group, part of a holding company called BNFL.
In 1983, according to Sellafield's Internet site, a "beach incident" occurred in which "highly radioactive discharges resulted in beach closure."
The radiation exposure report says, "Although there have been decreases in discharges made by Sellafield in recent years, the environmental levels have not reduced substantially. This is mainly due to historical discharges of 137-cs (radioactive cesium). Liquid wastes from Sellafield are discharged directly to the Irish Sea via a pipeline."
Seafood consumers were believed to ingest some radioactive material, and exposure was also possible from sediments or through handling contaminated fishing gear.
Still, the report concludes, the exposure was "in general . . . low."
Discussing fallout from past nuclear tests, discharges of radioactive waste and consumer products, the report says, "Exposures to members of the public from these sources remain at a very low level."
Six years ago, the British government temporarily shut down a reprocessing plant because officials feared workers had "deliberately falsified records relating to the quality of fuel pellets," says a Deseret Morning News article from that time.
Later, in April 2005, the thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield was shut down when a remote-controlled camera showed that a pipe had leaked badly. It turned out that the leak had begun months before, "possibly as early as June 2004," says a report authorized by British Nuclear Group Sellafield Ltd.
Britain's Nuclear Decommissioning Agency released a report in March 2006 pointing to metal fatigue as the cause of the failure. A large quantity, about 83 cubic meters, of "highly radioactive and corrosive" liquid ran into a secondary containment pool. There it remained, and apparently nobody was exposed to the toxic witch's brew.
Still, the incident raised concern. The government
placed 49 requirements on British Nuclear Group Sellafield Ltd. before it could restart the plant.
"EnergySolutions cannot comment on the details of specific operational matters in the UK," Hopkins wrote in an e-mail to the Deseret Morning News. "We note however that installed engineering systems fully contained the material and that no material was released to the environment, and no personnel were injured or exposed to the leaked material.
"We also saw in recent UK press articles that the plant in question is due to restart shortly."
Hopkins wrote that EnergySolutions believes that in the United States, the possibility of such accidents is extremely low."Nevertheless adequate design and operational safeguards have to be put in place and tested to ensure that the public, the environment and workers are fully protected in the event of an accident." He added that operational error can never be completely ruled out, and that's why engineering safeguards are required. "Lessons learned through many years of successful operations are constantly being incorporated," Hopkins wrote.
"Reprocessing absolutely does not relieve the need for a geologic repository," said Vanessa Pierce, program director for the Salt Lake City-based activist group Healthy Environmental Alliance of Utah. Reprocessing is not really recycling, she said.
The resulting volume of waste is less, Pierce said, "but that's irrelevant" to the question of whether a repository is needed. The capacity of the government's planned repository at Yucca Mountain is not limited because of the size of the waste containers but by the need to control heat generated by the highly radioactive material, she said.
Even though reprocessing reduces the bulk of the waste to be stored, the material that is left, which is not usable in power plants, still generates significant heat, Pierce said.
"You still need almost the same amount of space even though you've got a smaller volume of waste. So it does virtually nothing to solve our need for a geological repository."
Fetter, the University of Maryland professor, said fission products left over after reprocessing "cannot be recycled" and must be stored in a repository. "Yucca Mountain would be needed even if we reprocessed all the spent nuclear fuel," he said.
"It is the heat of the waste that determines how much you can put into the repository." Reprocessing as practiced in England and France "doesn't reduce the heat of the waste at all."
EnergySolutions' Hopkins replied, "Reprocessing does require a long-term storage facility like that proposed for Yucca Mountain."However, recycling used fuels greatly improves the storage facility efficiency. If the U.S. simply continues operating its existing nuclear power plants, without recycling, then more than one repository will be required." Without recycling, Hopkins said, the current stockpile of spent fuel would fill the anticipated capacity at Yucca. "Recycling used fuel," he added, "avoids the need for additional repositories."