Reprocessing, Waste and Bombs: Good News on the Energy Front, by Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford

There’s good news on the energy front.

To increase our energy supply, the Bush Administration will tap emissions-free nuclear energy in a way that reduces both nuclear waste and opportunities for nuclear proliferation: spent reactor fuel would be reprocessed by a new method and burned in fast reactors.

Largely unheralded, this offers an essentially endless supply of environmentally safe energy.

Unfortunately, the adverse reaction is intense – opponents associate reprocessing with separated plutonium, which can be used in nuclear bombs.

The confusion is understandable. The current method of reprocessing, known as PUREX, does produce separated plutonium. Happily, however, the new technology, called “pyroprocessing,” cannot produce the chemically pure plutonium required for nuclear weapons.1 Yet this much safer, reprocessed fuel is excellent feed for new “fast” reactors.

Re-using spent reactor fuel in fast reactors is very attractive, because what otherwise would need to be stored for ten thousand years is now consumable fuel. The waste will be much easier to store, since its radioactivity is almost gone in less than 500 years.

The plan to permanently store spent nuclear fuel in Yucca Mountain in Nevada is a major political issue. The objections should vanish, however, when people realize the new technology can end their worries about safeguarding the waste for a time that exceeds recorded history.

Good news on the nuclear proliferation front as well.

The nuclear-technology cat is, of course, out of the bag. The U.S. and other nations have been training nuclear engineers from developing countries for many years, and the world is already awash in plutonium. It is not lack of technological know-how that prevents these countries from making simple nuclear weapons. Rather, some of them lack the money and the technological infrastructure, while others realize that they are better off when they and their neighbors don’t have “the bomb.”

Although the conceptual information needed to make crude nuclear bombs is now widely available, much of the specialized engineering information is not. It takes a lot of resources for a developing nation to make nuclear weapons, especially ones that are light enough to be carried by crude missiles – even with good-quality plutonium, to say nothing of the hard-to-work-with stuff that comes out of power reactors.

However, people still worry about that low-quality plutonium. The good news is twofold. First, we need not fear that pyroprocessing will contribute to weapons proliferation, because it does not produce the pure plutonium needed for bombs. Second, fast reactors with
pyroprocessing will, over time, consume the excess plutonium that has been produced: they “burn” it, if you will, as fuel.

The new, pyroprocessed fast-reactor fuel is far more proliferation-resistant than today’s unreprocessed “spent” fuel. In both cases, further chemical processing would be needed to extract plutonium. And, in both cases, the resulting reactor-grade plutonium, especially from pyroprocessing, makes lousy bomb material. No nation spending the enormous amount of money for a nuclear weapons program would use reactor-grade plutonium. Everyone has easier options.

President Jimmy Carter renounced reprocessing in 1977, citing proliferation concerns. Happily, these concerns no longer need to stop us from enjoying the benefits of this environmentally appealing technology.

Gerald Marsh is a physicist who served with the U.S. START delegation and was a consultant to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on strategic nuclear policy and technology for many years. He is on the editorial board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and a member of The National Center for Public Policy Research advisory board. George Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety. 


1 This is also the conclusion of the Lawrence Livermore weapons laboratory.

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