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Nuclear reprocessing shut down due to high cost, safety problems, (but still useful to produce weapons grade plutonium)

Plutonium programs in East Asia and Idaho will challenge the Biden administration,  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Frank N. von Hippel | April 12, 2021”……………. [In the1980s the USA intervened to stop nuclear reprocessing being developed in several nations] The “invisible hand” of the market helped too. In the words of Admiral Rickover, the “father” of the US nuclear navy, after trying a sodium-cooled reactor in a submarine, he found them to be:

“expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.”

For these reasons, breeder reactors proved to be unable to compete economically with simpler water-cooled reactors fueled “once-through” by low-enriched uranium with the plutonium left unseparated in the spent fuel.

Furthermore, as more low-cost uranium was found and global nuclear power capacity plateaued after the Chernobyl accident, the problem that breeder reactors were supposed to solve—scarcity of the chain-reacting uranium-235 that makes up only 0.7 percent of natural uranium—retreated beyond any realistic planning horizon.

The United States abandoned its Clinch River Breeder Reactor project in 1983; because of safety concerns, Germany abandoned its completed-but-never-operated SNR-300 in 1991; the United Kingdom shut down its Prototype Fast Reactor in 1994; France shut down its Superphénix in 1998; and Japan shut down its Monju in 2017.

Today, after the industrialized world spent about $100 billion trying to commercialize them, only two sodium-cooled power reactor prototypes are operating, both in Russia. However, Russia’s nuclear conglomerate, Rosatom, recently decided to postpone construction of another because it was not expected to be economically competitive with a water-cooled reactor.

A half century after the first nuclear explosion that its breeder reactor program facilitated, India labors on with the completion of its long-delayed, over-budget Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor. Also, China has launched construction of two prototype breeder reactors. All three of these reactors may be dual purpose, however. In addition to producing electric power, they could produce weapon-grade plutonium for the national weapon programs.

Despite the commercial failure of breeder reactors, France, India, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom persisted with the separation of civilian plutonium. The United Kingdom will shut down its program this year but China is building a “demonstration” reprocessing plant. Also, South Korea’s nuclear establishment has been lobbying the United States for the same right to reprocess as Japan. The reprocessing programs in China, India, and Russia are in support of their breeder programs, but France is using the plutonium it separates in mixed-oxide fuel for its water-cooled reactors, and Japan is following France’s example. This reduces their requirements for low-enriched uranium fuel by about 10 percent, but the mixed-oxide fuel costs about ten times more than the low-enriched uranium fuel it replaces.

 The motivations for plutonium “recycle” in France and Japan are therefore not economic. Their nuclear establishments argue that reprocessing reduces the radioactive waste problem, but these arguments have been rejected by their waste-management experts.

The separation of plutonium by civilian reprocessing has far exceeded plutonium use in breeder and light-water reactor fuel with the result being a global stockpile of over 300 tons of civilian but weapon-usable plutonium (Figure 1 on original). By the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) metric, this is enough for almost 40,000 Nagasaki bombs.

This separated plutonium is currently stored relatively securely, but the half-life of its main isotope, Pu-239, is 24,000 years—much longer than the half-lives of governments. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 stimulated a major US effort to help Russia secure its plutonium so that it would not end up on the black market.

Before discussing US policy toward the civilian plutonium programs creating mutual pananoia in East Asia, it is important to understand the complications created for US nonproliferation policy by the renewed interest in plutonium fuel within the US Energy Department…………………….

April 13, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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