A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Dr. Ed Lyman’s testimony in front of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future in a post titled Union of Concerned Scientists Opposes ALL Proposed Used Fuel Recycling Efforts. I asked readers to watch his presentation and dissect it from a technical perspective.
Dr. Lyman has responded to my post and your comments in a rather dismissive, but lengthy post on the UCS “All Things Nuclear” blog titled Fact, Fiction and Faith: The Endless Debate Over Reprocessing. Here is a quote from that blog post:
My testimony appears to have given certain bloggers heartburn. Rod Adams of Atomic Insights saw fit to criticize my competence, my understanding of technology and my use of what he called “unsubstantiated statements and vague references.” Yet he was unable to actually point to anything specific in my testimony that he could contradict. Instead, he posted a video clip of my presentation and invited his loyal readers to defend the faith by “dissecting” my testimony.
I would be more than happy to engage Mr. Adams’ readers in a technical debate on these issues, so I thought, frankly, that this was a fine idea. However, two weeks later, it appears that Mr. Adams’ gambit has backfired. Out of twenty comments, only one actually professes any knowledge of any of the references that I cited. Most simply repeat unsubstantiated assertions themselves. Some claim that I must have misinterpreted the references but did not actually bother to look them up. Several are ad hominem attacks on me or UCS.
Note: Is is actually possible to engage in ad hominem attacks on an advocacy organization?
I have already responded to Dr. Lyman’s post with a comment, which might or might not have been approved by the time that you visit and see what else he has to say about the issue of recycling used nuclear fuel.
Here is a second comment that I just added and managed to remember to copy before submitting it to the moderation process.
“Numerous studies have shown that fast reactor (FR) recycle systems are very slow and inefficient in actually fissioning transuranic elements, even if they operate in burner mode with very low conversion ratios.”
I know that we have a completely different view of the world. Let me state the same facts in a different way:
“Numerous studies have shown that fast reactor (FR) recycle systems use very little fuel each day as they slowly fission transuranic elements and turn them into useful heat. If the fissioning is done in the presence of fertile isotopes in a configuration that approaches a conversion ration of 1:1, the total inventory of fissile isotopes will be essentially constant.
The process will have to continue for thousands of years in order to make a significant reduction in the world’s inventories of actinides. That important work of turning actinides into heat and then into useful energy will require hundreds of thousands of technically trained workers and provide useful energy for billions of people for the foreseeable future.”
Update: (Posted on September 18, 2010 at 1030)
Here is one more comment that I added to Dr. Lyman’s post. I am posting it here just in case it never becomes visible at the UCS site.
“It concluded that there is no “silver bullet” technology that would eliminate the safeguards and security issues associated with reprocessing, and also that “none of the proposed flowsheets examined to date justify reducing international safeguards or physical security protection levels. All of the reprocessing or recycling technologies evaluated to date still need rigorous safeguards and high levels of physical protection.” ”
I have read the Bathke studies (warning for low bandwidth users – link leads to a 8.1 MB scanned PDF) and talked to one of the primary authors of the paper, Dr. Barley Ebbinghaus. You have accurately reproduced the bottom line conclusion that there is no silver bullet that will completely eliminate the possibility of using recycled nuclear fuel materials in an “explosive device”.
The material is undoubtably fissionable and CAPABLE of being forced to explode by groups that either have a very high level of technical sophistication OR a low threshold for self protection, predictability, and fission yield.
It is also capable of being assembled into reactors to produce a controllable, emission free source of reliable heat that lasts a very long time, so it has incredible potential value in a world that is faced with a constrained supply of useful fuel materials.
One thing that a careful reader of Bathke’s work will gain is an appreciation of the fact that the weapons designers agree that the higher the overall burn-up the less attractive the resulting material is for anyone – sub-national group, for most of the less advanced proliferant nations, or for a technically advanced proliferant state. The calculated Figure of Merit never dips below a threshold of 1.0, so the material still requires protection, but the FOM does fall rather substantially with higher and higher exposure to neutrons. (An FOM below 1.0 would indicate that it is physically impossible to achieve a critical mass which would completely eliminate the possibility of an explosion.)
“The FOM1 of Pu and Pu+Np decreases significantly with increasing burn-up, because the concentrations of 239-Pu and 241-Pu (i.e. the isotopes with relatively high fission cross sections) decrease and the concentration of 238-Pu, which is an intense heat source, increases with increasing burn-up.”
That is what recycle systems do – they keep exposing weapons usable material to neutrons and make them less and less attractive. At the same time, those systems extract more and more energy value out of the material.
In my conversation with Dr. Ebbinhaus, made it clear that he and his fellow authors were not arguing against recycle. They support technology programs that put fissionable and fissile material back into reactors. Power reactors are safe places to store the material, to get more useful energy out, and to continue to degrade the material’s attractiveness as a weapons material.
A primary conclusion of their work, however, reminds nuclear fuel cycle innovators that there is little they can do to completely eliminate the potential that someone might want to use fissionable material to do harm. We must continue to invest in the physical protection systems and safeguards that make it possible to both use nuclear energy and to halt the potential for nuclear explosions.
That is really no different from the notion that we cannot fly in airplanes without some security precautions that prevent nefarious individuals from turning those very useful tools into explosive weapons of mass destruction capable of destroying large areas of populated major cities. (Of course, that never happens, does it?)
Publisher, Atomic Insights