Why Is The US DOE Planning To Pay Nearly Half a Billion Dollars to Dispose of a Ton of Material Worth $4600 Per Pound?
The US Department of Energy has a stockpile of approximately one ton of Uranium 233 that was produced as part of several experimental programs including the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment and the Light Water Breeder Reactor. According to a March 3, 1997 decision by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the stockpile is held in a number of different physical and chemical forms and is located in secure storage facilities at several DOE sites with the majority of the inventory held at either the Oak Ridge National Laboratory or the Idaho National Laboratory.
The current plan for this material is to blend it with about 15-20 tons of depleted uranium. The design effort for the facility to be used for this blending process has been running into some cost and schedule issues; the most recent cost estimate is $477 million with an expected start date of the blending at the end of 2012 with the project completing near the end of 2015.
This plan seems like a waste of both money and a potentially valuable feedstock. The reason that the U-233 exists is that a number of forward looking scientists and engineers recognized that thorium, a heavy metal that is 3-4 times as abundant as uranium in the Earth’s crust, is a potentially valuable nuclear fuel. It is not fissile in its natural form, but it can be converted into U-233, which is fissile. A thermal spectrum reactor using U-233 as the fissile material and Th-232 as the fertile material can breed; that has been proven with much greater than laboratory scale experiments.
The existence of an inventory of U-233 gives the concept of a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) a head start. Destroying that material now would raise the barrier to getting that concept off the ground.
The process set into motion by a 1997 decision should not be viewed as irreversible, especially since so much has changed since then with regard to energy supplies, interest in thorium, and recovery of the knowledge that was gained many decades ago. There is a group of students at the University of Cincinnati who have started a petition to ask the DOE to reconsider the decision and to save the U-233 for future development efforts.
Hat tip to Kirk Sorensen at Energy from Thorium for his continuing efforts to spread the word and keep the conversation going about the use of this valuable resource that should not be considered to be a waste product.
Here is a comment that I posted on Frank Munger’s Atomic City Underground blog entry titled U-233 project in flux; pricetag’s on the rise. My comment followed one by a reader named Mike who mentioned that the project was similar to blending the gold in Fort Knox with silver to reduce it to something that did not need as much security.
I have to agree with Mike. Refined U-233 is a “special nuclear material” that can produce valuable heat, with special utility as the igniter for reactors that turn thorium into useful fuel.
It is a resource that should be put to use, not a waste product that needs disposal. It is especially offensive to think that the Department of Energy would even consider spending nearly half a billion dollars to turn this cache of something with an energy value that makes it worth more than gold into a far less valuable product and then burying that still valuable material in the Utah desert.
Every gram of U-233 contains a MegaWatt-day of heat. That is nearly 82 million BTUs. The current wholesale market price for on million BTUs is about $5.50 if it is natural gas and about $12.00 if it is oil.
Every pound of U-233 thus contains
82 million BTU/gram x 454 grams/lb x 5.5 $/million BTU = $204,000 worth of heat.
Actually, I am exaggerating to make a point. Despite the fact that nuclear heat is cleaner and more concentrated than heat from gas or oil, nuclear fuel vendors only charge their customers about 50 cents per million BTU for manufactured fuel. About 25% of that price is for the fissile material, so my initial computation based on heat value overstates the current market price of U-233 as a fissile isotope by a factor of about 44.
At $4600 per pound, U-233 would have a value about 1/4th of the value of gold. The value it would have in converting fertile material to fissile material in a thermal breeder is much harder to quantify.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Note: This post has been corrected. In its original form, it incorrectly implied that gold was priced at less than $4600 per pound; gold’s current price is $16,500 per pound.
Your understatement! Isn’t the point – thats $4600 times some huge amount of energy from bred fuel?
This reminds me of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse,” how societies choose to fail or succeed. At least we’re not spending more to destroy the stuff than we’re spending on ethanol subsidies.
the actual price of gold is more like $16500 per pound. It is approximately $1100 a troy ounce, with about 15 troy ounces per pound as opposed to 16 ounces avurdupoise per pound.
@Cyrill – thank you for the correction. I have modified the original post.
I would very much like to thank Rod for covering this “Thorium” topic on his influential Blog.
Many Thorium advocates would dearly love to save America’s U-233 which is a very rare synthetic material (significantly more rare than any financial precious metal). U-233 is the most natural and arguably the best material to serve as a startup charge for a LFTR Thorium reactor (a LFTR could be started on a wide variety of fissile materials at the expense of greater complexity and cost – especially in the LFTRs supporting chemical plant – U-233 permits the most simple and natural solution to starting a LFTR in a pure thorium fuel cycle).
What was not mentioned in the Blog article is the fact that U-233 is also the precursor of important radio-isotopes for treating many forms of cancer. Late stage human clinical trials of new alpha particle monoclonal antibody medicines indicate they are highly effective for selectively killing leukemia cancer cells. There is supplementary work being performed at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute in New York by Dr. David A Schienberg, the current chair of Experimental Therapeutics Center, who together with his collaborators are using alpha particle monoclonal antibody medicines to target and treat other forms of cancer (colon, renal, and gastric cancer) and to significantly improve patients’ chances of survival and cure. Some of the best of the new alpha particle monoclonal antibody medicines are based on two progeny isotopes of Uranium 233 (bismuth 213 and actinium 225). The only source of these progeny isotopes derived from Uranium 233 are from two Department of Energy National Laboratories (Idaho and Oak Ridge National Laboratory) who are preparing to act under instructions from Congress to destroy and dispose of all national holdings of U 233 as a “waste” material having no currently funded DOE programmatic interest. DOE is currently working under instructions from Congress to consolidate and reduce in quantity all special nuclear material that are not required for specific currently funded department programs which could be the object of a potential terrorist attack. To reduce security costs, DOE plans to consolidate the special nuclear material at fewer sites and dispose of material it perceives it no longer needs. Uranium 233 is a special nuclear material, a material that can be used to create a sustained nuclear chain reaction. Uranium 233 is a material that is most well suited for building Thorium power reactors for generating electricity and has never, to my knowledge, been used to make a nuclear weapon. It is conceivable, but improbable, that U 233 could be used to make some form of weapon so the material has to be carefully stored in a secure location with other strategic nuclear materials. The current small national holdings of Uranium 233 are needed for manufacture of very valuable medical radioisotopes for use with new advanced monoclonal antibody based cancer treatment. The destruction of all the national holdings of Uranium 233 is a blunder that will cost very conservatively thousands of lives of leukemia cancer patients.
In the past the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy has expressed interest in obtaining the U 233 material but did not receive the very modest funding required to take custodianship and securely store this material. Thorium advocates ask DOE Labs to delay their plans to destroy and dispose of all national holdings of Uranium 233 and hope a letter writing campaign might succeed in saving this rare and valuable material from destruction through a tremendous blunder. The DOE Inspector General, Gregory H. Friedman, has estimated in his DOE Special Report IG 0795 of May 2008 that the current costs of storing America’s small holdings of U 233 are $60,000/year and the costs to destroy and dispose of this material to be approximately $5,000,000.00. The cost in research facilities and labor to originally make the U 233 is much higher and is well in excess of 2 billion in current US dollars. In his special report, the DOE Inspector General strongly argued to DOE management that DOE should retain the U 233 material it posses because of its value to the medical and research communities.
For reasons that are unclear, DOE management is currently proceeding with plans to destroy all American holdings of U 233 as “waste” and are now at a very advanced stage preparatory to the final destruction and disposal of this rare and valuable material.
It occurs to me that safe storage of this U233 is easily done. Store it anywhere we already have nuclear weapons. The infrastructure for safe-keeping is already in place. And it becomes a non-target for terrorists — why steal the U233 and then go through all the bother of producing a bomb from it, when there are bombs all built and ready to go at the same location?
Absolute bureaucratic insanity. I would like to think that Dr. Chu knows nothing about this.
If he does, and has not put a stop to it, it belies either his nuclear expertise, or his pro-nuclear agenda. And if he does not know, it calls into question his abiltiy as an administrator.
At least Obama seems to be listening to Chu more, and feels renewables can’t do it:
Also, Bill Gates agrees that renewables will not be sufficient:
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