Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Recycling Nuclear Waste

Imagine a new technology that, if placed into the wrong hands, could make it easier for enemies of the US to obtain weapons-grade plutonium. Why would the US ever purse such a dangerous technology? Something must be done about the ever growing world demand for energy. One way to ease the energy burden in the US could be to recycle spent nuclear fuel. It is possible that new power plants could be built that use recycled nuclear fuel from older power plants. Although it is unclear as to how much of an impact, if any, this technology could help ease our demand for energy, all options should be explored.

Recently, President Bush proposed a plan that would call for the United States to reuse spent nuclear fuel. This issue has generated a controversy within the scientific and political communities. An article in the magazine Nature, “Recycling the past”, contends that nuclear fuel recycling is “part of the problem, not the solution.” The article claims that the US abandoned plans to recycle spent nuclear fuel long ago because it is extremely costly and it would allow those who utilize the process access to weapons-grade nuclear material. It is unlikely, however, that an enemy of the US would ever be able to obtain weapons-grade plutonium from this process. The author of the article seems to overlook the fact that the US decides which countries get to explore peaceful options for nuclear power. Therefore, it is not at if the US will be handing out recycled nuclear fuel like Halloween candy.

In the Washington Post article, “Nuclear Energy Plan Would Use Spent Fuel”, President Bush claims that recycling nuclear fuel would aid the US in reducing dependence on fossil fuels and help meet the increasing global energy demand. Bush’s plan would allow the US to accept spent nuclear fuel from other countries for reprocessing. This is a highly controversial issue because the US has enough trouble finding a means to dispose of its own nuclear waste. President Bush stated that nuclear energy is “a solution that will not affect global warming.” Thus, the US ought to welcome this new technology regardless of the cost.

The Washington Post article seemed to be more convincing on this issue. The Nature article simply stated that the reprocessing of nuclear fuels was costly and dangerous; however, it did not go into any cost figures or compare this practice to any available alternatives. The other article admitted that the process will be costly and potentially dangerous. Unlike the Nature article, the article in the Washington Post actually provided cost figures and presented this practice as a possible solution to not only the energy crisis but also to the growing buildup of nuclear waste. While nuclear power will most likely not be the answer to meeting the world’s growing demand for energy, we ought to pursue it as an alternative to fossil fuels. Not only are fossil fuels responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions but they also come from one of the most politically unstable regions in the world.


Dezakin said...

The problem with reprocessing is that all reprocessing done today is essentially aqueous PUREX processes, which does plutonium extraction. Plutonium, while often used in MOX fuel rods, has a negative market value because of the high alpha activity that is problematic for fuel fabrication and transport. Another problem with plutonium is unfissionable parasites build up in thermal reactors and you can only recycle plutonium so many times before transuranic actinides totally poison the fuel matrix... You really only want to burn it in fast neutron reactors that dont exist yet (at least cost effective ones dont) so we're better off just storing it. However you only have to store 1/100th the plutonium and fission products as you would in ordinary spent fuel.

So really you want to do uranium extraction only, and you dont want to use the aqueous processes because they generate a lot of intermediate waste (nitric acid baths) are costly and take up a lot of space. It would be far better to use molten salt reprocessing developed at ANL for this which would potentially be profitable. With aqueous PUREX, its cheaper to just mine more uranium, even with price increases today.

Daniel Lupton said...

Jeff, good job on your first post. Your commenter brings up a lot of interesting issues related to your topic and is obviously much more knowledgeable than I am, so I don't have that much more to add. If, in your next posts, you can bring up more of the science side of it (as the commenter did) that would certainly help to strengthen your ethical argument.