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Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing

Dr. von Hippel is a professor at Princeton"s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The final version of his essay was published as a research report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials

Jan 15, 2007
AUTHOR: Frank von Hippel
Managing Spent Fuel in the United States-The Illogic of Reprocessing (PDF) 1,106.45 KB

Research Report No. 3
International Panel on Fissile Materials

Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing

Summary

Since 1982, it has been U.S. policy, for nonproliferation and cost reasons, not to reprocess spent power-reactor fuel. Instead, the Department of Energy (DOE) is to take spent power reactor fuel from U.S. nuclear utilities and place it in an underground federal geological repository. The first U.S. repository is being developed under Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Originally, it was expected to begin taking fuel in 1998. However, project management problems and determined opposition by the State of Nevada are expected to delay its opening for at least two decades.

U.S. nuclear utilities, therefore, have been pressing the DOE to establish one or more centralized interim storage facilities for their accumulating spent fuel. They insist that a "nuclear renaissance," i.e., investments in new nuclear power plants, will not take place in the U.S. until the federal government demonstrates that it is able to remove the spent fuel from the reactor sites. U.S. state governments resist hosting interim spent fuel storage, however, out of concern that the Yucca Mountain repository may never be licensed, and that interim storage could become permanent.

In Japan, a similar situation ultimately resulted in Japan first shipping its spent fuel to France and the United Kingdom to be reprocessed and then building a $20 billion domestic reprocessing plant to which spent fuel is now being shipped. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Energy similarly proposed reprocessing as a "solution" to the U.S. spent fuel problem.

Reprocessing of light-water-reactor fuel is being conducted on a large scale in France and in the United Kingdom. Much of the spent fuel that has been reprocessed has been foreign, notably from Germany and Japan, but since France and the United Kingdom require that the radioactive waste from reprocessing be returned to the country of origin, the need for interim radioactive waste storage in their customer countries was only postponed. In Japan, as part of its agreement to host Japan's domestic reprocessing plant, Amori Prefecture has also agreed to accept, for interim storage, the reprocessing waste returning from Europe to Japan. Germany and most European countries, other than France, have decided not to reprocess domestically, but rather store their spent fuel until a geological repository can be sited. France plans to continue reprocessing most of its domestic spent fuel and, like Japan, is storing the resulting radioactive waste at its reprocessing site in La Hague. The United Kingdom is abandoning reprocessing altogether.

The construction of plants to reprocess light-water-reactor spent fuel was originally justified in the 1970s as a way to obtain plutonium to start up liquid-sodium-cooled plutonium-breeder reactors that, in theory, could extract one hundred times more energy than current generation reactors from a ton of natural uranium. Breeder reactors were expected to be dominant by the year 2000. The transition to breeder reactors did not occur, however, because their capital costs, and those of reprocessing plants, were much higher than had been projected and because global nuclear generating capacity has grown to only a few percent of the level that was projected in the 1970s. This, along with the discovery of huge deposits of high-grade uranium ore in Australia and Canada, has postponed, for at least a century, concerns about shortages of low-cost uranium. Today, where plutonium is being recycled, it is being recycled as fuel for the light-water reactors (LWRs) from which it was extracted. Even with the cost of the reprocessing ignored as a "sunk cost," plutonium fuel is generally more costly than conventional low-enriched uranium fuel.

Worldwide, about half of the plutonium being separated is simply being stockpiled at the reprocessing plants along with the associated high-level waste from reprocessing. In effect, those sites are interim spent-fuel storage sites – except that much of the spent fuel is being stored in separated form. As of 2005, the global stockpile of separated civilian plutonium had grown to 250 tons – sufficient to make more than 30,000 nuclear weapons.

The DOE does not plan to recycle in existing light water reactors the plutonium that would, according to its proposal, be separated from U.S. spent fuel. Instead, it proposes that the federal government subsidize the construction of tens of sodium-cooled fastneutron "burner" reactors – basically, except for changes in their core design, the same sodium-cooled reactors that could not compete economically as plutonium breeder reactors. Plutonium – and, in the future, other less abundant transuranic elements extracted from spent light-water reactor fuel – would be recycled repeatedly through these reactors until, except for process losses, they were fissioned. The principal advantage claimed from doing this would be less long-lived waste per ton of spent fuel and that the residue from more spent fuel could be stored in the Yucca Mountain repository before a second repository would be required. Such a program would be enormously costly, however. The extra cost to deal with just the spent fuel that has already accumulated in the United States was estimated in 1996 by a U.S. National Academy of Sciences study as "likely to be no less than $50 billion and easily could be over $100 billion." U.S. nuclear utilities have made clear that these extra costs would have to be funded by the federal government. It is quite possible that the program would stop -- as previous efforts to commercialize sodium-cooled reactors have -- after only one or two "demonstration" reactors have been built. In this case, the reprocessing plant would simply become an interim storage site for the reprocessed spent fuel – as has happened in the United Kingdom and Russia after their breeder-reactor commercialization programs failed.

The French nuclear combine, Areva, has proposed that it would be less costly to adopt the French approach with a third-generation combined reprocessing and plutonium-fuel fabrication plant in the United States. This would involve recycling the plutonium once in light-water reactors. The resulting spent "mixed-oxide" fuel, which would still contain two thirds as much plutonium as was used to fabricate it, would then remain indefinitely in interim storage at the reprocessing plant. Thus, once again, the reprocessing plant would serve as a costly type of interim spent-fuel storage.

U.S. Government policy turned against reprocessing after India, in 1974, used the first plutonium recovered by its U.S.-assisted reprocessing program to make a nuclear explosion. Reprocessing makes plutonium accessible to would-be nuclear-weapon makers – national or sub-national – because it eliminates the protection provided by the lethal gamma radiation emitted by the fission products with which the plutonium is mixed in spent fuel.

In early 2006, the DOE originally proposed, as a more "proliferation-resistant" alternative to traditional reprocessing, to keep the reprocessed plutonium mixed with some or all of the minor transuranic elements in the spent fuel. Some of these elements are much more radioactive than the plutonium, but the radiation field that would surround the mix would be one thousand times less intense than the IAEA considers necessary to provide significant "self protection."

Recently, because of unresolved technical difficulties with fabricating fuel containing some of the minor transuranics, the DOE has sought "expressions of interest" from industry in building a reprocessing plant that would differ from conventional reprocessing only in that it would leave some of the uranium mixed with the plutonium. Pure plutonium could be separated out from this mixture in an unshielded glove box.

In fact, the Bush Administration does not argue that any of the variants of reprocessing proposed by the DOE are proliferation resistant enough to be deployed in states of proliferation concern. It has therefore proposed a "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership" in which the weapon states and Japan would provide reprocessing services for other nonweapon states. This proposal has already backfired in stimulating a revival of interest in France in exporting reprocessing technology and in South Korea in acquiring its own national reprocessing capabilities. A similar Bush Administration proposal to confine enrichment to states that already have full-scale commercial enrichment plants has similarly stimulated a revival of interest in enrichment in half a dozen non-weapon states.

In comparison, the U.S. policy, which is in effect, that "we don't reprocess and you don't need to either," has been much more successful. During the 30-year period it has been in force, no non-weapon state has initiated commercial reprocessing and seven countries have abandoned their interest in civilian reprocessing. In Belgium, Germany, and Italy domestic developments were more important than U.S. policy. In Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Taiwan, however, countries that were interested in developing a nuclear-weapon option, U.S. pressure played a key role. Today, Japan is the only nonweapon state that engages in commercial reprocessing.

The principal alternative to reprocessing, until U.S. spent fuel can be shipped to Yucca Mountain or some other centralized storage, is simply to keep older spent fuel in dry storage on the reactor sites. There is ample space inside the security fence at all U.S. power-reactor sites to store all the spent fuel that will be discharged, even if the reactor licenses are extended to allow them to operate until they are sixty years old. At an operating reactor site, the incremental safety and security risk from dry stored fuel is negligible relative to the danger from the fuel in the reactor core and the recently discharged fuel in the spent fuel pool.

I. Introduction

In 2006, in response to Congressional pressure to start moving spent fuel off U.S. powerreactor sites, the Department of Energy proposed U.S. Government-funded reprocessing of the fuel and recycling of the recovered plutonium and minor transuranic elements. If carried through, this proposal would reverse a nonproliferation policy established by the Ford and Carter Administrations after India, in 1974, used the first plutonium it extracted as part of a U.S.-supported reprocessing program, to make a nuclear explosion. U.S. policy became to oppose reprocessing where it was not already established and not to reprocess domestically.1 Four years later, in 1981, the Reagan Administration reversed the ban on domestic reprocessing.2 By that time, however, U.S. utilities had learned that reprocessing would be very costly and were unwilling to pay for it.3

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 therefore established that, in exchange for revenue from a tax of 0.1 cent per nuclear-generated kilowatt-hour of electricity, starting in 1998, the U.S. Department of Energy would take spent power reactor fuel from U.S. nuclear utilities and place it in an underground federal geological repository.4 In 1987, Congress decided to site the first such repository under Yucca Mountain, Nevada.5 Project management problems and determined opposition by the State of Nevada, however, have delayed the licensing process. Currently, the Department of Energy expects to receive a license for the Yucca Mountain repository in 2017 at the earliest.6 U.S. utilities therefore have been suing the DOE for the costs of building on-site dry-cask storage for the spent fuel that would have been shipped to Yucca Mountain on the originally contracted schedule. The Department of Energy has informed Congress that the cost of settling these lawsuits is likely to climb to $0.5 billion per year of delay in licensing the Yucca Mountain repository.7 The DOE has refused to share the basis for this estimate because of the lawsuits. The incremental cost for additional storage capacity, after the nuclear power plants have paid for the infrastructure for dry-cask storage (most have already) probably will be somewhat less.8 In any case, the costs would be about the same if the DOE had to pay for off-site storage.

Even if the Yucca Mountain repository had been licensed on time, however, the DOE would have faced another problem. When Congress selected Yucca Mountain to be the site of the first U.S. geological spent-fuel repository, it limited the quantity of commercial spent fuel that could be stored there to 63,000 tons until a second repository is in operation.9 U.S. nuclear power plants will have discharged about 63,000 tons of spent fuel by the end of 2008. The DOE is therefore faced with the challenge of siting a second repository at a time when it has not yet succeeded in licensing the first one. The Bush Administration has submitted legislation that would remove the 63,000-ton legislated limit. It is believed that the physical capacity of Yucca Mountain is great enough to hold the lifetime output of the current generation of U.S. power reactors and perhaps several times that amount (see below).

Because of the delay in the availability of the Yucca Mountain repository, in 2005, Congress asked the DOE to develop a plan for centralized interim storage and reprocessing of U.S. spent fuel. In May 2006, the DOE responded with a plan for a "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership" (GNEP) as a part of which the DOE would build reprocessing plants and subsidize the construction of tens of fast-neutron reactors to fission the recovered plutonium and other transuranic elements. The DOE argues that, if the transuranics are fissioned, and the 30-year half-life fission products that generate most of the heat in the resulting waste are stored on the surface for some hundreds of years, then residues from much more spent fuel could be stored in Yucca Mountain.

The DOE's Argonne National Laboratory, which provides technical support for the DOE's research and development program on advanced reprocessing technologies, envisioned GNEP as limited for many years to an R&D program, because the technology for recycling the minor transuranics, americium and curium is not in hand. Paul Lisowski, DOE's Deputy Program Manager for GNEP has described transuranic recycle as a "major technical risk area for GNEP."10 Under Congressional pressure to move more quickly, however, the DOE issued a request to industry for "Expressions of Interest" in constructing a conventional reprocessing plant and a demonstration fast-neutron reactor as soon as possible. The most likely contractor for construction of the reprocessing plant, the French nuclear conglomerate Areva, advises the United States to defer recycling anything other than plutonium and to build a larger-capacity version of France's reprocessing and plutonium recycle infrastructure. Specifically, it proposes that the plutonium in recently discharged U.S. spent fuel be recycled once in light-water reactors and then resulting spent "mixed-oxide" (MOX) fuel be stored at the reprocessing plant until the advent of fast-neutron "burner" reactors.11

The U.S. House of Representatives insisted, however, that a "first test of any site's willingness to host such a facility is its willingness to receive into interim storage spent fuel in dry casks…Resolution of the spent fuel problem cannot wait for the many years required for…GNEP [which] will not be ready to begin large-scale recycling of commercial spent fuel until the end of the next decade, and the Yucca Mountain repository will not open until roughly the same time. Such delays are acceptable only if accompanied by interim storage beginning this decade" [emphasis added].12

Thus the revived interest in the United States in reprocessing is very much entangled in the perceived urgency of starting to move spent fuel off of reactor sites.

The report that follows describes the history of interest in civilian reprocessing, past experience with reprocessing costs, estimates of its likely costs in the United States with and without transmutation of the recovered transuranic elements, and the debate over the relative "proliferation resistance" of alternative fuel cycles. It concludes that a much less costly and proliferation resistant alternative to reprocessing and transuranic recycle would be continued on-site storage of U.S. spent fuel until either Yucca Mountain or some other off-site location is available.

II. Historical Background

Fuel reprocessing was invented during World War II as a way to recover plutonium for nuclear weapons from irradiated reactor fuel. From the 1950s through the 1970s, however, it was expected to play an essential role in civilian nuclear power as well.

The original rationale for reprocessing

This expectation was based on the belief that deposits of high-grade uranium ore were too scarce to support nuclear power on a large scale based on a "once-through" fuel cycle. The once-through fuel cycle, as realized with the dominant light-water reactor (LWR) today, involves the production of low-enriched uranium containing about 4 percent U- 235, which is then irradiated until most of the U-235 and about 2 percent of the U-238 have been fissioned, and then is stored indefinitely (see Figure 1).

This fuel cycle uses most of the fission energy stored in the rare chain-reacting uranium isotope, U-235, which makes up 0.7 percent of natural uranium. Atom for atom, however, the U-238 atoms, which make up virtually all of the remaining 99.3 percent of natural uranium, contain as much potential fission energy. If it were possible to fission the U- 238, the amount of energy releasable from a kilogram of natural uranium therefore would be increased about one hundred fold.

Plutonium breeder reactors. A month after the first reactor went critical under the stands of the University of Chicago's football stadium, Leo Szilard, who first conceived of the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction, invented a reactor that could efficiently tap the energy in U-238 by turning it into chain-reacting plutonium. In a sodium-cooled reactor, a chain reaction in plutonium would be sustained by "fast" neutrons that had not been slowed down as much by collisions with the sodium coolant as neutrons are in collisions with the light hydrogen atoms in the cooling water of conventional reactors. Plutonium fissions by fast neutrons produce enough neutrons so that it is possible on average to convert more than one U-238 atom into plutonium per plutonium atom destroyed.13 Such reactors are called plutonium "breeder" reactors. Alternatively, they can be thought of as U-238 burner reactors.

Being able to exploit the energy stored in the nucleus of U-238 would make it possible to mine ores containing about one percent as much natural uranium as could be economically mined for the energy in U-235 alone. Indeed, even the 3 grams of uranium in a ton of average crustal rock, if fissioned completely, would release almost ten times as much energy as is contained in a ton of coal.14 The nuclear-energy pioneers therefore talked of breeder reactors making it possible to "burn the rocks" and thereby create a source of fission energy that could power humanity for a million years.

The growth of global nuclear-power capacity slowed dramatically in the 1980s, however, (see Figure 2) and huge deposits of rich uranium ore were discovered in Australia, Canada and elsewhere. As a result, the long-term trend of natural-uranium costs has been down rather than up (see Figure 3). Concerns about uranium shortages linger on today in arguments that nuclear power based on a "once-through," low-enriched uranium fuel cycle is not "sustainable." But such concerns about the inadequacy of the world's uranium resources have shifted to far beyond 2050.15 In any case, depleted uranium and spent fuel can be stored so as to be available in the event that it becomes cost-effective to "mine" them for the energy in their uranium-238.

At the same time, the differences between the capital and operating costs of water and sodium-cooled reactors have remained discouragingly large. Many experimental and demonstration breeder reactors have been built around the world but none has been a commercial success.19

Because of its compact core, Admiral Rickover, the father of the U.S. nuclear navy, had a sodium-cooled reactor built for the second U.S. nuclear submarine, the Seawolf. After sea trials in 1957, however, he had the reactor replaced by a pressurized water reactor. His summary of his experience with the sodium-cooled reactor pretty aptly characterizes the problems that have been subsequently experienced in attempts to commercialize sodiumcooled breeder reactors. These reactors are "expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair."20

In anticipation of a need for large quantities of separated plutonium to provide startup cores for the breeder reactors, however, commercial reprocessing of spent light-water reactor fuel was launched in the 1960s. Spent light-water reactor (LWR) fuel contains about one percent plutonium. Civilian pilot and full-scale reprocessing plants have been built in eight countries.21

Growing stockpiles of separated civilian plutonium. In the absence of significant breeder-reactor capacity, some countries – notably France and Germany – have been recycling their separated plutonium back into LWR fuel. The cost of fabricating mixedoxide (MOX) plutonium-uranium fuel for light water reactors has been greater, however, than the value of the low-enriched uranium fuel that has been saved.22 As a result, there is no commercial demand for plutonium as a fuel and large stockpiles have accumulated at the reprocessing plants, along with the fission-product waste from which the plutonium was separated. The United Kingdom and Russia have stockpiled all the plutonium that they have been separating from their own spent fuel (and, in Russia's case, also from the spent fuel that Eastern and Central European utilities have been shipping to Russia for reprocessing). Japan's separated plutonium has accumulated at the French and U.K. reprocessing plants because local government opposition in Japan has delayed its plutonium recycle program for a decade. 23

Based on declarations of civilian plutonium stocks to the IAEA, the global stock of separated civilian plutonium has been growing by an average of ten tons per year since 1996 and was about 250 metric tons as of the end of 2005 (see Table 1). This stockpile is approximately the same size as the global stockpile of plutonium that was produced for weapons during the Cold War. About 100 tons of Russian, U.S. and U.K. weapon plutonium have been declared excess, increasing the global stockpile of excess separated plutonium still further.

As an energy resource, the world stockpile of separated civilian plutonium is not huge. It could fuel the world's fleet of power reactors for less than a year. In terms of weapon equivalents, however, it is huge. Using the IAEA's 8-kg weapon equivalent, the 320 tons of civilian and excess weapons plutonium could be converted into 40,000 first-generation (Nagasaki-type) nuclear weapons. In 1998, a Royal Society report observed that the possibility that the United Kingdom's very large stockpile of separated civilian plutonium "might, at some stage, be accessed for illicit weapons production is of extreme concern."24 If this is a concern in the United Kingdom, it should be a concern in any country with significant quantities of separated plutonium.

Why reprocessing persists

The United Kingdom plans to end its reprocessing by 2012.26 But France continues, Japan put a big new reprocessing plant into operation in 2006, and the Bush Administration has proposed that the United States launch a domestic reprocessing program. Why, in the face of adverse economics, does civilian reprocessing persist? NIMBY pressures. Reprocessing continued in Western Europe and Japan in the 1980s and 1990s in part because of a combination of local political pressures to do something about the problem of spent fuel accumulating at power-reactor sites and not-in-mybackyard (NIMBY) political opposition elsewhere to geological repositories or central interim storage facilities for spent fuel. Reprocessing provided an interim destination for the spent fuel.

German and Japanese nuclear utilities largely financed the French and British multibillion- dollar commercial reprocessing facilities.27 Their respite was only temporary, however, because the reprocessing contracts provided that the solidified fission-product waste would be shipped back to the countries of origin. Germany's anti-nuclear movement finally succeeded in persuading the SPD-Green coalition government to stop reprocessing and eventually phase out nuclear power in Germany and, in exchange, agreed to accept the construction of dry-cask interim spent-fuel storage at the reactor sites until the site of a geological repository could be settled.28

Japan's nuclear utilities went down a different route. They persuaded the rural Amori Prefecture to store, for 50 years, the radioactive waste being returned from Europe as part of an agreement in which the prefecture accepted a large reprocessing plant in return for receiving large payments from a central fund. Japan's nuclear utilities now are shipping their spent fuel to the Rokkasho reprocessing plant. The separated plutonium and highlevel waste will be stored there. The high level waste, at least, will stay there until a geological repository can be opened – hopefully within the promised 50 years. The plutonium will be added to Japan's existing forty-ton stockpile of separated plutonium that is eventually to be recycled in MOX fuel.29

The Bush Administration's reprocessing proposal. U.S. nuclear utilities too have been unable to ship their accumulating spent fuel off their reactor sites. As noted above, the reason is delays in the licensing of the DOE's proposed geological repository under Yucca Mountain, Nevada. U.S. utilities therefore have been suing the DOE for the costs of building additional on-site dry-cask storage.

In 2005, in order to stop these accumulating lawsuits, the U.S. Congress asked the DOE to develop a plan for centralized interim storage and reprocessing of U.S. spent fuel.30 In May 2006, the DOE responded with a plan for a "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership" (GNEP). This plan envisioned building reprocessing plants that would separate spent light-water-reactor fuel into four streams: uranium, plutonium mixed with the other transuranic elements (neptunium, americium and curium); the 30-year-half-life fission products, strontium-90 and cesium-137; and other fission products. This is the so-called UREX+ fuel cycle (see Figure 4).

The transuranic elements would be recycled in a hypothetical future generation of fastneutron "burner" reactors until – except for losses to various waste streams – the transuranics were fissioned. The designs of the burner reactors would be adapted from the sodium-cooled reactors that previously were to be commercialized as plutonium-breeder reactors, only with the plutonium breeding uranium blankets around their cores removed. The uranium would be stored or disposed of as waste. The strontium-90 and cesium-137 would be placed into interim surface storage for some hundreds of years – presumably at the reprocessing plant. Only the residual wastes after the separation of these three streams would be placed in the Yucca Mt. repository.

By removing in each cycle, 99 percent of the strontium-90 and cesium-137, and of the transuranic elements, the main sources of radioactive decay heat in the spent fuel on century and millennial scales respectively, the long-term temperature increase of the rock around the disposal tunnels under Yucca Mountain per ton of spent fuel would be decreased about 20-fold. The residue from 20 times as much spent fuel therefore could be emplaced in the Mountain before a new repository would have to be sited.32 The political resistance to the siting of the Yucca Mt. repository has been so fierce that this is considered by the DOE to be a major long-term advantage of the proposed UREX+ fuel cycle and a prerequisite for nuclear power to have a long-term future in the United States.

The current limit on the capacity of Yucca Mt., however, is not physical but legislated. When Congress selected Yucca Mt. as the nation's first geological radioactive waste repository, it wished to reassure Nevada that it would not have to carry this burden alone. As already noted, it therefore limited the quantity of commercial spent fuel or reprocessing waste that can be stored there to 63,000 tons "until such a time as a second repository is in operation." This amount of spent fuel will have been discharged by U.S. reactors by 2008. Hence the dire warnings of the necessity to site repositories in additional states. In order to deal with this problem, the Bush Administration has proposed to lift the legislated limit on the amount of spent fuel that can be stored in Yucca Mt. 33

The federal government has not come to its own conclusion about what the physical capacity of Yucca Mt. might be. Using federal studies made as part of the licensing process for the repository, however, the utility industry's Electrical Power Research Institute estimates that there is enough capacity in the surveyed areas of Yucca Mountain to store 260,000 -570,000 tons of spent fuel – and perhaps more. This is two to five times as much as the current generation of U.S. power reactors are expected to discharge over their lifetimes.34

Because of the delay in licensing the repository and the utility lawsuits, however, the Congressional Appropriations Subcommittees that fund the Department of Energy have been pressing the DOE to begin moving spent fuel off power reactor sites. In part at least in response to this pressure, on August 7, 2006, the DOE announced that it was considering building a 2000-3000 ton per year spent-fuel reprocessing plant based on the existing technology being used in France, and a 2000 MWt (thermal) sodium-cooled fastneutron reactor of the pool-type design used for France's failed Superphénix reactor. The reprocessing plant would be modified so that some of the uranium in the spent fuel would remain mixed with the plutonium. In this way, the Department of Energy would honor its commitment to make reprocessing more "proliferation resistant." Plutonium can be separated out of such a mixture very much more easily, however, than from spent fuel (see Section IV). The fast reactor would be fueled initially by "conventional fast reactor fuel," i.e. a mix of plutonium and uranium.35 In January 2007, the DOE announced that it planned to lay the basis for a decision by the Secretary of Energy to launch this program "no later than June 2008," i.e. before President Bush leaves office.36

Reprocessing 2000-3000 tons of light-water-reactor spent fuel would separate 24-36 tons of plutonium per year.37 By comparison, France's failed 3000 MWt Supérphenix, even operating on a once-through fuel cycle, would have annually irradiated only about 2 tons of plutonium.38 In effect, unless the DOE adopts the French strategy of recycling MOX in LWRs, its reprocessing initiative would, for the foreseeable future, transform almost all spent fuel shipped from U.S. nuclear-power-reactor sites into separated plutonium and high-level waste stored at a reprocessing site. The compelling reason for the DOE initiative, therefore, appears to be, as in Japan, to provide an alternative destination for spent fuel until a geological radioactive waste repository becomes available.

The DOE's reprocessing proposals are controversial both because of their cost and their impact on U.S. nonproliferation policy. We discuss these issues in the next two sections.

 

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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