Issue Date: September 17, 2007
Once-Through Fuel Cycle
Kudos to C&EN for its good coverage of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) proposals to better close the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle (C&EN, June 18, page 48). But with all due respect to John Deutsch, Richard Garwin, Ernest Moniz, and Frank Von Hippel, relying on a once-through fuel cycle without recycling unused fissionable materials is short-sighted.
It may be cheaper now, but if the world really does greatly increase nuclear power use to combat global warming as well as conserve fossil fuels, once through will not be cheaper for very long. The spot price of uranium has more than tripled in the past couple of years, and long-term contract prices have increased 30% as stocks of uranium from dismantled weapons and from overproduction of the 1970s have dwindled. This doesn't affect nuclear power yet because the nuclear fuel is only a minor part of the cost. But it does increase the value of recycled uranium and plutonium relative to freshly mined uranium.
GNEP proposes useful modifications to the classical recycling done now by France, Britain, and Japan, which can greatly help the waste problem. Deep long-term burial, such as at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, is expensive. At least we are making it so. Separation of the cesium and strontium, which contain most of the radioactivity and which can be buried with far less engineering because of their short half-lives, can greatly ease the heat load of the deep disposal site, which is the technical limit on its capacity.
Next, the actinides beyond uranium have most of the half-lives longer than 1,000 years. Consuming them in a fast neutron reactor greatly eases the containment requirements of the deep disposal site. It also makes use of their energy, because they are all fissionable. (Although plutonium is now consumed in ordinary reactors in Western Europe and Japan, such reactors are much less efficient at consuming isotopes of plutonium and the higher actinides than is a fast-neutron reactor.)
As mentioned in the article, we shouldn't immediately start planning a full-size reprocessing plant. Trying to make up for lost time with a great leap forward is a recipe for failure. But that is no excuse for doing nothing. The lab and pilot-plant work should be occurring now. On the other hand, we do have recent experience with fast-neutron reactors at the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II and the Fast Flux Test Facility.
Looking back, the real reason private reprocessing facilities at Barnwell, S.C., were not activated after President Ronald Reagan revoked the ban was the risk of sinking more money into an expensive project subject to the political winds. Bipartisan support will be needed for GNEP to last beyond the next election.
Idaho Falls, Idaho
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