RESEARCH ON ACCELERATOR TRANSMUTATION OF WASTE AND PYROPROCESSING IS A COLOSSAL WASTE OF TAXPAYER MONEY
STATEMENT OF EDWIN S. LYMAN, PHD
NUCLEAR CONTROL INSTITUTE
MAY 24, 2001
Good morning. I'm Edwin Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a nuclear non-proliferation research and advocacy organization. Like Dr. Makhijanis organization, IEER, NCI is greatly concerned about the accumulation of stockpiles of hundreds of tons of weapon-usable plutonium that is occurring in nations that reprocess spent nuclear fuel like the U.K. and France. In comparison, the U.S. moratorium on reprocessing initiated by the Ford Administration, rooted in concern about the proliferation risks inherent in producing, processing and transporting vast quantities of plutonium --- was wise policy. The U.S. currently faces a bill of at least $4 billion to dispose of a mere 34 metric tons of plutonium taken from dismantled nuclear warheads --- if the U.S. had continued down the path of civilian reprocessing 25 years ago, it is likely that the U.S. would have a few hundred additional tons of plutonium to add to this pile, with a corresponding increase in financial burden on taxpayers or electricity ratepayers.
In spite of this, the Bush energy policy proposes that "the United States should reexamine its policies to allow for research, development and deployment" of so-called proliferation-resistant reprocessing technologies like pyroprocessing. The policy also refers to a "new technology known as accelerator transmutation, which could be used in combination with reprocessing to reduce the quantity and toxicity of nuclear waste." The idea is that these technologies could make it easier to dispose of nuclear waste while avoiding the proliferation risks associated with conventional reprocessing.
The political reasons for this recommendation are pretty clear. First, it was to make amends with influential members of Congress like Senator Domenici of New Mexico, an outspoken advocate of nuclear energy and reprocessing, who were upset by the Bush Administrations proposal in April to drastically reduce or even zero out funds for some of their favorite pork barrel projects, like the Accelerator Transmutation of Waste (ATW) program at Los Alamos. Bills introduced by Senators Domenici and Murkowski earlier this year contain provisions for establishing an Office of Spent Fuel Research to coordinate reprocessing technology development at DOE, and these bills no doubt provide a starting point for the legislative implementation of the Bush policy. Second, the energy policy had to contain a bone to throw to certain Nevada politicians who were concerned about a Bush policy that proposed new construction of nuclear power plants but didnt offer any alternative other than the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada for the waste they would create.
Political considerations aside, is there any technical merit to concepts like ATW? In our judgment, the answer is a resounding NO! Implementing DOEs ATW concept would vastly increase the environmental, safety and proliferation risks from nuclear power, cost taxpayers a fortune and almost certainly fail to achieve its primary purpose, which is to simplify nuclear waste disposal.
In 1999, DOE issued a report to Congress entitled "A Roadmap for Developing ATW Technology." The report describes how a massive nationwide system of spent fuel reprocessing plants, accelerator-driven spallation neutron sources, liquid-metal cooled ATW target assemblies and pyrochemical ATW reprocessing plants --- could transmute the entire U.S. spent fuel inventory over a 118-year period for a cost of only $279 billion (1999 dollars).
The Bush energy policy does not make spell out who it thinks is going to pay to design, build and run these facilities for over a century --- not to mention protect and safeguard all the nuclear material processing and transport. Would electric utilities now in the throes of deregulation embrace the prospect of spending billions of dollars for research and tens of billions of dollars to build new fleet of facilities to deal with a problem for which they now only pay 0.1 cent per kilowatt-hour? And most important, how would a nationwide transmutation system be operated with the level of central planning necessary for such a complex system? One of the basic facts of transmutation is that if the system were to fail before the job were complete, the actual reduction in plutonium that would have been achieved would be less than a factor of ten, and the project would be nothing more than a big waste of money and time.
There is only one plausible answer to this question. The U.S. government would build and run the system and U.S. taxpayers would pay for it. Looking at the chaos plaguing the electricity industry today, it is very difficult to imagine that it would ever be able to act as one coordinated unit unless it were nationalized. As the Roadmap itself concedes, "it is unlikely that the private sector would implement a waste transmutation scheme on its own without incentives ... the federal government would have to play the primary role in organization, management and funding of any such system." It is odd that the ATW roadmap would be embraced by free-market conservatives like Bush and Domenici, because it is really a plan for nationalization of the electricity industry.
Besides this, NCIs greatest concern is the proliferation risk associated with a plan that involves reprocessing at least 80,000 tons of spent fuel, containing at least 800 tons of plutonium, and then running the plutonium and other radioactive materials through the transmutation plants, reprocessing the spent targets and running the process over and over again. The amount of plutonium that would be processed through such a system is truly staggering and would overwhelm the resources of DOE or whichever agency would be tasked with safeguarding and protecting this material. It would be impossible to eliminate the risk that plutonium would be diverted or stolen by insiders.
Some people in DOE are aware of this threat, and for this reason have proposed that pyroprocessing, a so-called proliferation-resistant reprocessing technology, be used in the ATW system. The promoters of pyroprocessing at Argonne National Laboratory-West in Idaho claim that it is a method in which plutonium can be safely recycled, because it never produces plutonium that is pure enough that it can easily be removed undetected, and would require further treatment before it could be used in a nuclear weapon. Like ATW, it sounds good at first, but the reality falls far short of these claims.
Pyroprocessing was originally developed for reprocessing metallic spent fuel from the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), a plutonium breeder reactor program that was cancelled in 1994. Since then, the program has been kept alive as a pork-barrel program by supporters of Argonne National Laboratory, and is being used to reprocess spent fuel left over from the now-shutdown Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II). Pyroprocessing does not involve dissolving spent fuel in an acid solution, which is the first step of conventional reprocessing. Instead, the fuel is chopped and suspended in baskets in a molten salt bath with an electric current passing through it. Most of the spent fuel constituents, including uranium, plutonium and fission products, dissolve into the salt. Some remain in the salt, like most of the fission products, while uranium and plutonium are removed from the salt through deposition on different cathodes. Promoters argue that because the plutonium removed from the salt in this manner contains some uranium, other transuranic elements and some fission product contamination, it is so impure that it would not be desirable for a terrorist seeking fissile material for a bomb, and would be so radioactive that it would be hard to steal anyway.
None of these claims has merit. Because most of the highly radioactive fission products dissolve in the salt, the level of contamination of the plutonium is insufficient to make it prohibitively dangerous to handle. Moreover, the other transuranic elements mixed in with the plutonium, like americium-241, are also weapon-usable materials. And the process can be altered to produce pure plutonium if desired. Effectively safeguarding this plant would also be more difficult because it is harder to accurately measure and keep track of the fissile materials in the process. For these reasons, it is unlikely that these plants would be any more proliferation-resistant than conventional reprocessing plants.
The claim that pyroprocessing can also reduce the quantity of nuclear waste is false. Most of the volume of spent fuel is uranium, which has to be separated out. However, pyroprocessing produces uranium that is not pure enough to recycle again into new fuel and therefore is just another nuclear waste stream that has to be disposed of.
Pyroprocessing has also run into a lot of technical problems. A three-year demonstration of the process failed to complete its goals of processing 125 spent fuel elements -- so that DOE was able to argue that the demonstration was successful only by changing the success criteria it had originally established! The process is dirty and several serious incidents, including contamination of 11 personnel, occurred. The process is still apparently experiencing problems --- The Bush administration budget provided funding only to support operation at a rate of 0.5 tons of fuel per year --- one-tenth of the rate at which it is supposed to be operating. At this rate, it will take more than 50 years to process an amount of EBR-II spent fuel which was supposed to take only 5 years. According to ANL, it could only achieve the original rate by running it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and making unspecified "process improvements" which will cost more money.
The government of Japan has been criticized for its attempts to pick technology winners and losers, rather than letting the market decide. The Bush administration seems determined to follow Japan's example. But there is little doubt that the technologies it is endorsing --- not to mention the taxpayers who will have to pay for them --- will be sure-fire losers.