In recent weeks, there has been an expanding discussion of the concept of nuclear fuel recycling in the state of South Carolina. I have been following it rather closely for a number of reasons. I have a soft spot in my heart for South Carolina; I spent five and a half very good years living in Charleston and both of my daughters can claim to be natives of that independently minded state.
South Carolina has long been a leader in the nuclear power technology and training – 50% of the electricity in the state is produced in 7 nuclear power plants, the state hosts the Savannah River Site and its materials laboratories and production facilities, much of the low level nuclear waste produced in the US is safely stored at Barnwell, and more than 2,500 sailors are trained each in nuclear technology at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command in Goose Creek. (Aside: I proudly attended my son-in-law’s graduation from Nuclear Power School there a couple of years ago.)
Following in the tradition of political leaders from the state like Congressman L. Mendel Rivers, a bipartisan team of Rep. James Clyburn and Sen. Lindsey Graham have been working to encourage programs to recycle used nuclear fuel.
Their support is logical from both a technical and political standpoint. It simply makes good sense to treat used fuel as a resource rather than as a waste problem since it still contains about 95% of its potential energy plus a large inventory of rare and useful elements. Politically speaking, South Carolina has a natural leg up on any new industry development based on the established infrastructure at SRS – which includes the appropriate security and a new mixed oxide (MOX) fuel plant that is under construction.
I was not too surprised to learn that there are apparently sincere people that disagree with Clyburn and Graham and advocate a cautious approach to any recycling program. After all, it has been conventional wisdom for many years that nuclear fuel reprocessing inevitably results in nuclear weapons proliferation despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the existing recycling programs in countries like the UK, France and Japan have allowed any material to be diverted for bomb making. On September 13, 2008 an editorial appeared in on GreenvilleOnline.com titled Nuclear reprocessing is risky and impractical that laid out the case against fuel recycling. (Note:, I like the word “recycling” much better than the scarier sounding “reprocessing” and encourage all nuclear advocates to help change the popular lexicon.)
Those of you who have followed the issue over the past 30 years or so would “shocked, shocked I say” to learn that the Union of Concerned Scientists is quoted as reporting that recycling results in a twenty fold increase in the waste volume. Apparently that study has never been updated to reflect the refinements that Cogema has learned in its years of operational experience at La Hague.
The advanced PUREX process, implemented with total waste management, results in important waste volume minimisation, so that the total volume of High Level Waste (HLW) and Intermediate Level Waste (ILW), including transuranic waste is lower compared to spent fuel direct disposal. Moreover, further minimisation, based on improvement of existing waste management, is still achievable. COGEMA thus launched the necessary programme: by the year 2000, the overall volume of HLW and ILW conditioned waste, to be stored in deep repository, will be reduced to 0.5 m3/tU; the volume of waste to be sent to surface repository being less than 1 m3/tU against 1.4 m3/tU today.
That result should not surprise anyone who has ever been involved in a factory production environment that includes a well supported process improvement program. Call it Lean Six-Sigma, Total Quality Management or any one of several other buzz words, but I call it learning and working hard every day to achieve better results than were available the day before.
I also find it interesting that the people opposed to nuclear fuel recycling would make the following slanted statement
“In 2003, for example, researchers from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government said that reprocessing costs more than twice as much as safe, on-site interim storage of nuclear waste.”
Though the magic of Google, I put my hands on the executive summary of the actual report – The Economics of Reprocessing vs. Direct Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel Authors: Matthew Bunn, Associate Professor of Public Policy; Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom, Bob van der Zwaan, Research Associate, Energy Technology Innovation Policy, John P. Holdren, Director and Faculty Chair, Science, Technology and Public Policy Program, Steve Fetter, Affiliate, Project on Managing the Atom. It took about two seconds and three clicks.
Here is what the executive summary actually states
At a uranium price of $40/kgU (comparable to current prices), reprocessing and recycling at a reprocessing price of $1000/kgHM would increase the cost of nuclear electricity by 1.3 mills/kWh. Since the total back-end cost for the direct disposal is in the range of 1.5 mills/kgWh, this represents more than an 80% increase in the costs attributable to spent fuel management (after taking account of appropriate credits or charges for recovered plutonium and uranium from reprocessing).
The reason I accuse the authors of adding slant by saying that the cost of reprocessing is “twice” the cost of interim storage is not the slight exaggeration of an 80% increase into “more than twice”/ It is the fact that the actual magnitude of the cost is still tiny compared to the cost of electricity or the cost of fuel from competitive fossil fuel plants. 0.13 cents/kWh pales into insignificance compared to an average wholesale electricity price in the US of 7 cents per kilowatt hour. In other words, that particular cost study is not a good excuse for turning waste into useful fuel.
I also made a few contributions to the comment thread at on the GreenvilleOnline.com editorial and encourage all of you to visit and read the full piece to get a feel for the kinds of arguments that continue to be made against the idea of eventually recycling the used materials left over from nuclear fission reactor operation.
For the record, I cannot argue with the idea that recycling used fuel costs a bit more than a system based on virgin fuel. However, that same statement can be made about any recycled product, especially in the early days of refining the production process. It still seems to make an infinite amount of sense to retain used fuel in an easily accessed location and to work on the recycling process since the actual process improvement steps cannot start until the process is in use.