I have just had the pleasure, and sometimes the frustration, of observing two days worth of hearings by the Reactor and Fuel Cycle Technology Subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The venue for the sessions was the Washington Marriott Hotel on 22nd Street, NW, just north of Pennsylvania Avenue. You can find the full agenda for the meeting on the web. At some point, the archive of the meeting video should be available on the subcommittee web site.
The following subcommittee members attended at least part of the meeting: Former US Senator Pete Domenici – Co-Chairman, Per Peterson – Co-Chairman, Brent Scowcroft – Ex Officio, Al Carnesale, Susan Eisenhower, Allison Macfarlane Richard Meserve, Phil Sharp.
On August 30, 2010, the meeting started off with a session titled Opportunities in Reactor and Fuel Cycle Technologies
- Dr. Alan Hanson, Executive Vice President Technologies and Used Fuel Management, AREVA
- Mr. Jack Fuller, Chairman of the Board, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy
- Dr. Kate Jackson, Chief Technology Officer, Westinghouse
- Mr. Alan Dobson, Senior Vice President, Energy Solutions
- Dr. Edwin Lyman, Senior Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists
- Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, Senior Associate, Radioactive Waste Management Associates
Here is a very brief summary of the presentations. Dr. Hanson described the experience and continuous process technology development that has enabled Areva to build a successful nuclear fuel recycling program that removes the 4% of used fuel that is fission products and isolates it using a vitrification process in glass logs. Those glass logs are stored in silos under the floor of a building about the size of a high school gymnasium.
Aside: One of the few regrets I have about the trip I took to see Areva’s fuel cycle facilities in June of 2010 (as a guest of the company) was that we were running short of time before our scheduled train. We were not able to visit the interior of the building above the glass logs; I really wanted to be able to say I had walked across of all of France’s nuclear waste. End Aside.
The remaining 96% of the fuel is repurposed. The 1% of the material that is plutonium is separated and used as the fissile material for new fuel elements. It takes the Pu from 7 used LEU fuel elements to make a single MOX fuel element. The 95% of the material that is uranium is reenriched for use in new commercial fuel elements. According to Dr. Hanson’s presentation, Areva’s experience has been that the system obtains approximately 25% more energy from a given input of uranium on the first recycle pass. That does not count any energy that may be recovered if the used MOX fuel elements are recycled into a fast reactor.
The only components of this cycle that Areva considers to be true waste and destined for a geologic repository are the fission fragments contained in the vitrified glass logs. (Kirk Sorensen, who blogs at Energy from Thorium and NNadir, a blogger who used to write on Daily Kos have written about the actual composition of fission products; neither of them believe that even the fission product portion of the fuel leftovers should be considered to be waste.)
Mr. Jack Fuller, Chairman of the Board of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy described his company’s long experience and joint ventures in developing boiling water reactor technology, sodium cooled fast reactors and laser enrichment. He then focused on the PRISM, a 330 MWe sodium cooled fast reactor design that uses metallic alloy fuel. That concept evolved out of experience gained as part of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR-II) project and its later refinement in preparation for an Integral Fast Reactor using pyroprocessing of the used fuel. The goal of pyroprocessing was/is to keep waste production to a minimum while enhancing uranium utilization to a projected level of 90% of the input material, which compares favorably (understatement) with today’s level of about 0.5%.
Ms. Kate Jackson, Chief Technology Officer at Westinghouse, described her company’s long experience with pressurized water reactors, its experience with sodium cooled fast reactors at the Fast Flux Test Facility (FFTF) and participation with the Clinch River breeder reactor program. She also described the company’s current interest in recycling technology.
One of the key ideas that I took away from her talk was a need for a future waste program to develop ways to encourage fuel suppliers to take the eventual waste form and volume into account at the front end. She described how there were paths of improvement that suppliers could take, but there was no economic incentive to do so with the current government controlled and mandated cost of on mil per kilowatt-hour – no matter what – on the back end.
Mr. Alan Dobson, Senior Vice President of EnergySolutions had to start his presentation by answering a question from Senator Domenici. Senator Domenici asked Mr. Dobson to introduce EnergySolutions, since he was not familiar with the company. Mr. Dobson said he would be happy to do so, but only had 10 minutes to speak and that was not a planned part of his presentation. Senator Domenici demonstrated one of the reasons why he had been an effective committee chairman for so many years by disarmingly telling Mr. Dobson to go ahead and answer the question and he would not start the 10 minute clock until after that was finished.
EnergySolutions is a nuclear waste specialty company that has been formed through several acquisitions over the past half a dozen years. It is a household name for Utah Jazz and Golden Eagle fans; those profession sports teams play in the EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City.
Mr. Dobson, who was once part of a British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd. (BNFL) unit purchased by EnergySolutions, described some of the recycling and materials research that his company has been investing in for the past several years. He did not go into great detail, but expressed the fact that EnergySolutions was interested and capable of supplying technology and services that would reduce waste volumes and put useful material into a form that would be reusable as fuel.
After all of the hopeful, positive and heart warming information provided by the first four speakers, the commission moved on to the rest of the panel. Dr. Lyman started off his talk by categorically stating that the Union of Concerned Scientists is neither pro-nuclear nor anti-nuclear. He then proceeded to describe why he and his organization thought that nothing that any of the previous companies had described was of any interest and was not something that the UCS would support.
Dr. Resnikoff described the history of the West Valley nuclear fuel recycling operation in New York near Rochester, and then proceeded to describe why he believed that a project started in 1963 and halted as uneconomic in 1967 proved that nuclear fuel recycling was a bad idea that should never again be attempted.
If I avoided trying to do everything that I had not mastered by 1967, I would have never moved past addition and subtraction and I would still be reading very simple paragraphs. (I was in the second grade in 1967 and am now a grandfather who has just retired from a 29 year career as nuclear trained naval officer.) It is a good thing that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs did n
ot stop thinking about the improvements that might be made in computers after 1967 – they did not start thinking about the Apple I until at least a half a dozen years after West Valley stopped operating.
After the initial presentations, there was about an hour’s worth of questions, answers and debates between the commissioners, the nuclear technology vendors and the naysayers. It was quite entertaining. I will have to dig through my notes to provide a better summary. There are still five more panels to discuss. I also want to describe some of the hallway conversations that provided even more insights into what might happen as a result of the BRC formation, meetings, deliberations and eventual production of the draft report, due at the end of June 2011.