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A new evaluation of fast reactors and recycling spent fuel is badly needed; the time to start is now. To recycle spent light water reactor fuel and use the product to fuel a fast neutron reactor will solve at least two major problems – adequate electricity (with no emissions) for the indefinite future (millennia) and elimination of the current red herring, spent light water reactor fuel disposal. The power stations of the future, equipped with fast neutron reactors, burn everything – plutonium does not accumulate.
The United States has 28 large light water reactors in the nuclear regulatory review pipeline and as the political pressure to tax the burning of carbon – coal, oil and gas – grows, so will the utilities’ need to build more nuclear power stations.
We now have 104 operating superbly. Arizona Sen. John McCain suggested during his campaign that 45 be built and recently, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has recommended 100 new reactors. Our studies show that 200 new gigawatt nuclear power stations could replace all the coal plants in the United States.
Other nations are now active in new construction. The Chinese are in the process of constructing 28 nuclear power stations and have proposed building a sodium- cooled fast neutron reactor. In India, six are on the way, including a sodium cooled plant. Worldwide,
440 nuclear reactors are in operation and, by present plans, there will be 520 in a few years. To the dismay of those who are uninformed or negative for whatever reason, the world is going nuclear and the amount of spent fuel will accumulate even faster than before.
Is there enough uranium-235 in the world for an industry this large and growing even larger? The answer is uncertain. Various studies suggest that known deposits of uranium ore will be depleted in 50-75 years and the cost of fuel for nuclear reactors will rise as the supply drops.
The ocean has enormous quantities of uranium (and practically every other element) but the recovery price would be very, very high. To depend on such luck might work out, but the spent fuel red herring would remain.
The surest path is to construct a demonstration size recycle plant and a fast neutron reactor to burn the product.
Past objections to recycling have invariably (perhaps purposely) dwelt on the PUREX chemical process used since World War II to extract weapons-grade plutonium, exactly what we do NOT want for the energy industry. We, the Russians, French, British, and Chinese all used this process, but for reactor fuel it is obsolete – new chemical research has created at least one much better method, called UREX which was designed for the nuclear industry. This technique depends on chemical dissolution of the fuel pins, as before, but now allows for the removal of some or all of the fission products and a small amount of uranium, leaving behind most of the uranium and all the transuranics, including plutonium (all isotopes), americium, curium, californium, etc. This mish-mash of heavy elements is theft proof because of heat, radiation and weight, but just fine for fast neutron reactor fuel. The fission products of significance are cesium-137 and strontium-90 both with 30-year half lives. Their radioactivity will decay to background in 10 half-lives, or about 300 years and the storage problem suddenly becomes near-trivial. We would be surprised if commercial uses for the fission products were not found — one minor rare Earth, rhodium (a stable fission product), is said to be worth $10,000 per gram.
Thus, our proposal is to build demonstration recycle plants and fast neutron reactors, start now, improve where and when possible and plan for the future – generation, distribution and economics – of the electrical industry. Getting started will be expensive, but the alternatives – very expensive power, scheduled blackouts or the continual burning of coal until it is gone – are not pleasant to anticipate either.
Power for the national electrical grid for future centuries is one of the major problems; we can set the course for a solution. Now is the time to start!
Bill Stratton and Don Petersen are members of
Los Alamos Education Group