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nuclear fuel reprocessing proposed for US

 

The Indie 5:51, June 1, 2007

The US nuclear power industry, forced into dormancy almost thirty years ago by the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, is positioning itself for a revival. Despite objections that the nuclear fuel cycle has been demonstrated to produce significant greenhouse gas emissions, is far more expensive per megawatt than renewable technologies and energy efficiency programs, and that new nukes would take at least a decade to begin coming on-line, some environmentalists have joined the Bush administration in proclaiming nuclear power to be part of the solution to global warming.

In January, 2006, President Bush announced his vision for our nuclear future, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). GNEP proposes to build new nuclear plants using “advanced burner” technology and to reprocess the spent fuel now piling up at commercial reactor sites. The United States would also get into the business of reprocessing spent fuel from other countries willing to lease fuel rods from us rather than develop their own nuclear power programs.

John Sticpewich, an Asheville-area resident and retired oil and gas industry geologist, became curious about the consequences for Asheville if a South Carolina location were chosen for the spent fuel reprocessing plant GNEP calls for. (Of the eleven sites under study, the Savannah River Site and nearby Barnwell are both in SC.) At a Common Sense at the Nuclear Crossroads press conference announcing his findings, Sticpewich said, “I came to the study with a healthy case of skepticism and ended with an unhealthy case of horror.”

Reprocessing
When uranium fuel rods outlive their usefulness in the core of a nuclear reactor, they’re removed intact in their assemblies and immediately stored underwater in cooling pools. This is necessary because the fission chain-reaction continues. The rods remain hot enough to melt and or burn. Over the next five or so years, a buildup of fractured atoms within the rods slows the reaction sufficiently to permit dry storage in heavily shielded casks. Meanwhile, the atomic debris in the rods has become viciously radioactive. According to Sticpewich, a person standing three feet away from an unshielded assembly of spent fuel rods would receive a lethal dose in three seconds. Many of the worst gamma ray emitters decay within a few hundred years. Other constituents remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. That’s a long time to stand guard over storage casks.

Spent fuel still contains fissile —chain-reacting—isotopes of uranium, plutonium, and other heavy elements. The chemical separation of these from the bits and pieces of broken atoms to make fresh fuel is called reprocessing. Because the classic method also produces bomb-grade plutonium, the United States frowns on North Korea and other countries that attempt it. Due to concerns that reprocessing here might hasten nuclear proliferation abroad, the US ended attempts at commercial reprocessing in 1976.

Elsewhere, reprocessing continued. As the UK has discovered at its Sellafield complex, the enterprise can carry high environmental costs. It is also monetarily expensive. In May of this year, French reprocessor AREVA inked a deal with the Italian government to reprocess 235 tons of spent fuel for 250 million euros.  Converted to US dollars, this is more than $1.4 million per ton. Frank von Hippel, co-director of Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security estimates a price tag of $100 billion to reprocess the existing US inventory of this commercial high-level radioactive waste.

Despite the drawbacks, reprocessing remains national policy in France, Japan, India, Russia, and the UK. The Bush administration claims that newer reprocessing technologies carry less risk of plutonium falling into the wrong hands. Large scale reprocessing would address power company demands to be relieved of the nearly 60,000 tons of spent fuel littering their grounds and put off the thorny question of permanent storage. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was supposed to serve as a permanent underground spent fuel repository, but objections from the State of Nevada, Native Americans, and environmental groups have stalled the development of the facility.

Spokespeople from the Department of Energy (DOE) chose not to speculate for me on the capacity of the proposed GNEP reprocessing plant. A facility large enough to put a dent in our national backlog of spent fuel would dwarf any existing reprocessing operation. Richard Garvin, nuclear physicist and military technology advisor to several presidential administrations, has written that the GNEP plant would be designed to handle 2,500 tons/year, only slightly more than the 2,250 tons annually produced by US commercial reactors. Even so, if he’s correct, a reprocessing facility capable of this volume would single-handedly double the amount of spent fuel reprocessed worldwide.

On the Road
Regardless of the reprocessing site chosen, spent fuel would have to travel to get there. The DOE is now soliciting proposals for a new containment device to move and store it. The Transportation, Aging and Disposal Canister (TAD canister) is supposed to provide storage space for a specific number of spent fuel assemblies. Special encasements, or overpacks, for TAD canisters will allow them to serve triple duty: transportation, above ground storage, and permanent entombment. Preliminary size specifications for a TAD canister in its transportation overpack call for a dumbbell-shaped behemoth 27’ 9” in length and 10’ 6” wide at the dumbbell ends. Filled with spent fuel, this unit would weigh 250,000 lb., equivalent to a loaded railroad coal car. On the highway, the gross vehicular weight of a TAD transport would likely tip weigh station scales at about 300,000 lb. This scoffs at the usual 80,000 lb. maximum gross weight for tractor trailers but doesn’t win any tonnage prize according to a weigh station officer with whom I spoke. He routinely sees comparable weights for rigs carrying industrial steel dies. The heaviest vehicle he recalls weighed 495,000 lb. It’s enough to make an overpass squeal for its momma.

More than a TAD
The transportation angle is what interested Sticpewich. To look into it, he accessed a 2003 DOE database containing reports from nuclear plant operators about the quantity of spent fuel held at plant sites and the rate at which each reactor produces spent fuel.

He was also granted access to TRAGIS, a software package developed by the National Transport Research Center at Oak Ridge Laboratories. Shipping dispatchers can use TRAGIS to determine highway, rail, or water routes for a variety of cargoes, including “special conditions” cargoes such as spent nuclear fuel. A dispatcher need only choose between highway, rail, or water and key in the shipment’s origin and destination. TRAGIS responds with a preferred route and alternates if desired.

After months of labor, virtual spent-fuel dispatcher Sticpewich had gleaned a trove of information on the spent fuel stored at the 48 nuclear power station sites in the northeastern quadrant of the United States. (All states east of the Mississippi and north of South Carolina) Together, in 2002, these sites were home to 30,814 tons of waste contained in 111,249 fuel rod assemblies. He calculated the number of TAD canisters required to move the entire stock of spent fuel from each plant site to South Carolina and asked TRAGIS for road, rail, and water (barge) maps of the primary and first alternate routes. His report of the project, More than a TAD: A Study of the Problems With the Transport and Reprocessing of Nuclear Waste in the Carolinas, includes an overview of GNEP, TAD canisters, specific site tonnages, and 38 state-by-state TRAGIS route maps.

“There’s a funnel effect of stuff coming down,” Sticpewich says. “It’s not very good for those of us in the South.” Asheville (I-40 and I-26) figures in several of the highway route maps. Surprisingly, the Norfolk-Southern rail line through town doesn’t appear at all. Atlanta, Charlotte, and Fayetteville would see heavy spent fuel traffic, but the biggest loser is Columbia, SC. Almost all highway and many rail routes converge there.   

Sticpewich notes that TRAGIS considers only currently authorized highways. I-240 is not among them. He believes that the completion of the I-26 connecter may result in some spent fuel shipments approaching the Carolinas on I-81 being rerouted from I-77 (through Charlotte) to I-26 (Asheville) for the direct dive south.

The Horror, the Horror
Sticpewich’s discomfort with GNEP derives from several sources. While he doesn’t rule out the possibility that research may one day enable the reliable and safe destruction of spent fuel in reactors using new technologies, he questions the wisdom of digging our spent fuel hole deeper now by building more conventional nuclear plants. Nor is he impressed by the track record of the proposed advanced burner or “fast neutron” reactors GNEP touts as a means of “burning” a higher percentage of fissionable elements. (A higher burn percentage would reduce the quantities of high-level radioactive waste requiring secure storage for hundreds or thousands of years.)

Advanced burners operate at much higher temperatures than the boiling or pressurized water nuclear reactors used here today. Liquid sodium or lead, rather than water, is usually circulated around the rods in the reactor core. Twenty-odd fast burner plants have been attempted worldwide. High costs and fires have been a problem. Japan lost the use of its new Monju reactor in 1995 when a sodium coolant pipe broke. The fire burned at 1500° C and melted the steel structures in the room. Monju is now being restarted. Apart from it and the power plants of some Russian submarines, only three fast neutron plants apparently remain in operation: the BN 600 in Russia and two small research reactors, Phénix in France and Joyo in Japan.

The vulnerability of spent fuel casks to terrorist attack also concerns Sticpewich. TAD canister design specifications call for the dry storage overpack version to withstand a direct hit by an F-15 fighter jet crash. But transportation overpack requirements fail to mention resistance to predictable terrorist methods. In response to a Congressional request for a study on the security of spent fuel, the National Research Council produced a classified report. A public version, Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage, was released in 2006.The authors conclude, “It would be hard for terrorists to steal enough spent fuel from storage facilities for use in significant radiological dispersal devices (dirty bombs).”

With a droll sense of humor, Sticpewich replies, “Right. We’ll fix that by transporting [spent fuel] around.” Each TAD canister would contain 8.4 - 9.9 tons of spent fuel, including heavy quantities of gamma ray emitting fission decay products. Terrorists could not cause a nuclear explosion in a TAD, but Sticpewich’s calculations indicate that, in addition to the gamma ray emitters, each canister would contain more U-235 than the Hiroshima bomb and ten times more Pu-239 than “Fat Man,” the bomb that leveled Nagasaki. If dispersed, “dirty” may be an inadequate word to characterize the devastation wrought by such quantities of high-level radioactive waste.

Sticpewich summarizes by asking readers of More than a TAD not to accept the rationality of GNEP at face value. Rather than prescribe solutions, his report poses questions about the premises, potential benefits, and costs of GNEP proposals. He hopes readers will draw their own conclusions about what makes sense and what does not. “These questions,” he writes, “are too important to be left to the politicians and corporations.”

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2007 all rights reserved

 

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