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Plutonium and high-level nuclear waste

About plutonium and the “reprocessing” or “recycling” of used nuclear fuel. Gordon Edwards, 12 Oct 22

Plutonium is less than 1/2 of one percent of the used nuclear fuel, but it is a powerful source of energy that can be used for military or civilian purposes (nuclear bomb or nuclear reactors). To get the plutonium out of the used fuel is a very messy operation. The places where reprocessing has been done on a large scale are among the most radioactively contaminated sites in the world. Although NWMO says that plutonium use  is not on their agenda, it is included, in writing, as one of their options. Today, in New Brunswick, government funding is going to Moltex Corp. to proceed with plans that require plutonium use. Chalk River is just beginning to build a billion-dollar brand new research facility that will be dealing with plutonium as a priority. A large nuclear industry mural painted on the walls of the Saskatoon Airport states that reprocessing used fuel to get the plutonium out is the last step in the “Nuclear Fuel Cycle”.

(1) Nuclear fuel can be handled with care before it goes into a nuclear reactor. But used nuclear fuel will never be handled by human hands again, at least for several centuries, because of the hundreds of newly-created radioactive materials inside each fuel bundle. These are (a) the broken pieces of uranium atoms that have been spit, (b) the newly-created “transuranic” (heavier than uranium) materials that are produced, and (c) the so-called “activation products” (non-radioactive materials that have been de-stabilized and so are now radioactive).  See “Nuclear Waste 101” https://youtu.be/wD2ixadwXW8

(2) Radioactivity is not a thing, but a property of certain materials that have unstable atoms. Most atoms are stable and unchanging. Radioactive atoms are unstable. Each radioactive atom is like a tiny little time bomb, that will eventually “explode” (the industry uses the word “disintegrate”). When an atom disintegrates it gives off projectiles that can damage living cells, causing them to develop into cancers later on. These projectiles are of four kinds: alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, and neutrons. These damaging emissions are called “atomic radiation”. No one knows how to turn off radioactivity, so they remain dangerous while they exist.

(The danger lasts for tens of millions of years)

(3) Used nuclear fuel is so radioactive that it can give a lethal dose of gamma radiation and neutrons to any unshielded humans that are nearby. Even the “30-year old” used fuel that  NWMO wants to transport to a “willing host community” is still far too dangerous to be handled without massive shielding and robotic equipment. The job of repackaging the used fuel bundles requires the use of shielded “hot cells” — which are specially constructed airtight rooms with thick windows (4 to 6 feet thick) and large robot arms like those used in outer space to protect the workers from being overexposed to radiation.  Any damage to the outer metal coating on the fuel bundles will allow radioactive materials to escape from inside the fuel in the form of radioactive gasses, vapours, or dust. That’s why the hot cells have to be air-tight,  and why these rooms themselves will eventually become radioactive waste. 

See https://youtu.be/g8EPo8BntPQ (below)

(3) Nuclear proponents often point out that the used nuclear fuel – the stuff that NWMO wants to “bury” underground – still has a lot of energy potential and could be “recycled”. That’s because one of the radioactive materials in the waste, called “plutonium”, can be used to make atomic bombs or other kinds of nuclear weapons, and it can also be used as a fuel for more nuclear reactors. But to get plutonium out of the fuel bundles they have to be dissolved in some kind of acid or “molten salt”, turning the waste into a liquid form instead of a solid form. This allows radioactive gasses to escape from the fuel, and makes it much more difficult to keep all the other radioactive materials (now in liquid form) out of the environment of living things. Any plutonium extraction technology is called “reprocessing”.

4) Although NWMO says that reprocessing is not their intention, it has always been considered a possibility and has never been excluded. It is stated in all NWMO documentation that reprocessing remains an option. Once a willing host community has said “yes” to receive all of Canada’s used nuclear fuel, the government and industry can then decide that they want to get that plutonium out of the fuel before burying it.  That means opening up the fuel bundles and spilling all the radioactive poisons into a gaseous or liquid medium so they can separate the plutonium (and maybe a few other things) from all the rest of the radioactive garbage. Canada has built and operated reprocessing plants in the 1940s and 1950s at Chalk River. AECL tried but failed to get the government to build a commercial-scale reprocessing plant in the late 1970s. Canada did some experimental reprocessing in Manitoba, when AECL built the “Underground Research Laboratory” to study the idea of a DGR for used nuclear fuel in the 1980s and 1990s.  Read http://www.ccnr.org/AECL_plute.html . 

(5) The big reprocessing centres in the world include Hanford, in Washington State; Sellafield, in Northern England; Mayak, in Russia; La Hague, in France; and Rokkasho, in Japan. There is also a shut-down commercial reprocessing plant at West Vallay, New York.  These sites are all environmental foul-ups requiring extremely costly and dangerous cleanups. 

HANFORD: over $100 billion needed to clean up the sitehttps://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/hanfords-soaring-cost-of-radioactive-waste-cleanup-is-targeted-as-nw-governors-seek-more-funding/

SELLAFIELD: over 200 billion pounds ($222 billion) for cleanuphttps://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/sep/23/uk-nuclear-waste-cleanup-decommissioning-power-stations

MAYAK: severe environmental contamination but no cost estimateshttps://bellona.org/news/nuclear-issues/radwaste-storage-at-nuclear-fuel-cycle-plants-in-russia/2011-12-russias-infamous-reprocessing-plant-mayak-never-stopped-illegal-dumping-of-radioactive-waste-into-nearby-river-poisoning-residents-newly-disclosed-court-finding-says

LA HAGUE: widespread contamination, no detailed dollar figure providedhttps://ejatlas.org/conflict/la-hague-center-of-the-reprocessing-of-nuclear-waste-france

ROKKASHO: years of cost overruns and delays – $130 billion for starters

https://www.neimagazine.com/news/newsjapans-rokkasho-reprocessing-plant-postponed-again-8105722

WEST VALLEY: only operated for 6 years, about $5 billion in cleanup costhttps://www.ucsusa.org/resources/brief-history-reprocessing-and-cleanup-west-valley-ny

(6) Newer reprocessing technologies are smaller and use different approaches – but basically, any time you are going to open uo the fuel bundles, you are “playing with fire” and it is much harder to keep all the radioactive pioisons in check once they are out of the fuel bundle.

Read http://www.ccnr.org/paulson_legacy.html

(7) My feeling is that any “handling” or “repackaging” or “reprocessing” of used nuclear fuel should NOT be done in a remote community that does not have the economic or political “clout” to demand that things be done properly. If It is to be dine at all, this should be done back in the major population centres where the reactors are located and people living there can raise a fuss if things are not done safely.  

(8) Also, my feeling is that the fuel should not be moved at all until the reactors are all shut down. The radioactive wastes can be very well packaged and carefully guarded where they are. Since NWMO will only move 30-year old used fuel, there will ALWAYS be 30 years worth of unburied waste right at the surface, right beside the reactors, ready to suffer a catastrophe of some sort, no matter HOW fast they bury the older fuel. In fact, the nuclear indusrtry does not really want to “get rid” of nuclear waste at all, but just move some of the older stuff out of the way so that they can keep on making more. The best place to take the waste is where there are no reporters or TV broadcasters or influential wealthy people to blow the whistle if things go badly. Maybe I’m a little over-suspicious, but given the history of waste management, you can’t be too careful.

9) In Germany, they buried radioactive waste in an old salt mine as a kind of DGR for a very long time. When radioactive contamination kept leaking into the ground water and the surface waters, the nuclear scientists in charge did not tell the government or the public for almost 10 years. Then, when it became clear that the environment was being severely affected, the German government decided to take all the waste OUT of the DGR – a difficult and dangerous operation that will take 15-30 years and cost over 3.7 billion euros ($5 billion Canadian equivalent.) 

Read https://www.neimagazine.com/features/featureclearing-out-asse-2/

Any potential willing host community would be well advised to insist that all “handling” of individual fuel bundles, of any kind whatsoever, whether repackaging or reprocessing, should not be part of the plan for the willing host community to accept. But it would have to be in writing and legally enforceable.

Of course the decision is entirely up to the willing host community, not me – and hopefully, not the industry either.

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October 12, 2022 - Posted by | - plutonium, Canada, Reference

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