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The worldwide dimension

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Re-processing: the weak link

(May, 1978) At the end of April, demonstrators from all over the United States were converging on Rocky Rats, America's "nuclear cross-roads", with its plutonium separation plant for bomb manufacture. Others were headed for Barnwell, site of the third U.S. "re-processing" plant for extracting plutonium from oxide reactor fuel.

On the same day, thousands were due to demonstrate in London against plans for a new re-processing plant at Windscale. On May 20-21, there will be demonstrations against the extension of the dangerous re-processing facilities at La Hague. As for the German Federal Republic, the government there faces massive opposition from the local population and the country-wide anti-nuclear movement if it tries to go through with its scheme for reprocessing plus waste disposal at Gorleben.

The "re-processing" of used fuel from atomic reactors is itself a nuclear cross-roads. Between "peaceful" and military atomic programmes. And between the present atomic age and the looming "plutonium era".

The plutonium which re-processing yields can be used for one of two things: to make bombs; or as fuel for the "fast breeder" reactors of the future. Despite this, re-processing used fuel is being used as an alibi by governments which have found no solution to the problem of disposing of it as waste.

What is going on today is a clash of interests within the nuclear camp. On one side is the United States government, whose priority is to reduce the chances of too many politically "unreliable" countries getting the bomb by blocking re-processing elsewhere in the world. Onthe other are three western Europe governments (Britain, France and the German Federal Republic), mainly concerned with the interests of their nuclear industries and their economies (foreign exchange income from re-processing, sale of technology, long-term energy independence). The anti-nuclear movement is against both kinds of reprocessing: American plutonium is no less dangerous than any other.

It all started with bombs

"Plutonium separation" was an essential part of the original nuclear weapons programmes, from which early atomic power programmes developed. But there was no satisfactory reason why civil reactor waste should be reprocessed. (Canada, which had an early civil atomic programme but no military programme, has never seen re-processing as an essential or desirable part of waste management). However, the USA, Britain and France all built civil re-processing plants.

It was not until 1976 that the United States attitude changed. On October 28 President Ford announced: have decided that the United States should no longer regard re-processing of used fuel to produce plutonium as a necessary and inevitable step in the nuclear fuel cycle / and that / avoidance of proliferation must take precedence over economic interests".

President Carter went a step further and called on other countries not to build new reprocessing plants.

Economically, the policy switch cost the American nuclear industry little (or it would probably not have happened !). Attempts at re-processing oxide nuclear fuels had proved an economic disaster, and the industry was backing off from fast breeder technology as too risky and expensive; so the plutonium from re-processing would not be needed. The field was thus clear for what does seem to have been the main reason : growing political concern over the spread of nuclear weapons. The Indian atomic test explosion of 1974 had caused a major shook, for the explosive had come from a civilian research reactor to which both the U.S. and Canada had contributed material.

Cynical European governments

Unfortunately, the political leaders of Britain, France and the German Federal Republic do not show the same sense of responsibility about the spread of atomic weapons as the American and Canadian governments. The European nuclear lobby is fully committed to the re-processing - fast breeder option, and can provide the governments with convincing economic arguments for developing re-processing capacity. For Britain and France at least, one reason has to do with balance of payments problems. France and Britain have the only commercial re-processing plants operating (more or less!) outside the USA. So contracts to handle waste fuel from other countries offer a prospect of major foreign currency income (which will justify, if not offset , the high cost of the plants).

But above all, re-processing is linked to the fast-breeder option. The European nuclear establishment does not enjoy its dependence on enriched uranium supplies from the United States, which makes it vulnerable both to competitive and political pressures. Fast breeders "producing more enriched uranium than they consume" have been seen as the way out. But the five tonnes of plutonium needed per fast breeder can only come from those harmless sounding "re-processing" plants. If there is a chance to bolster failing economies and secure jobs and currency by selling both re-processing and fast-breeder technology, then as far as Schmidt and Giscard are concerned, so much the better.

Lastly, under growing pressure about the pile-up of atomic waste, governments are not hesitating to present re-processing - especially if it is in another country - as a "solution" to that problem (as though re-processing itself left no waste to be disposed of). The German authorities cleverly call re-processing Entsorgung (literally, removing worries!) and the planned Gorleben complex, with re-processing, intermediate waste storage and "final" waste disposal underground, a "worry removal area" (Entsorgungspark)!! It was early as 1971 that the nuclear authorities of France, Britain and the German Federal Republic formed United Reprocessors, to coordinate investment in re-processing facilities. They planned three large oxide fuel reprocessing plants - alongside the ones at La Hague and Windscale, plus one at Gorleben. In addition, France is due to sell one to Pakistan, and Germany to Brazil.

North Americans put the screws on

Now the three governments have run into the de facto alliance of Canadian and American opposition, and local protest. Canada and the U.S. are the world's major suppliers of uranium. In 1977, Canada re-negotiated her uranium supply agreement with Euratom (the nine EEC countries, including the three would-be re-processors) so that from the end of 1979 she will be able to veto re-processing of EEC atomic fuel containing Canadian uranium. The United States already has that veto power with nonEEC countries, including Japan, so French and British contracts for handling Japanese used fuel in their proposed plants may well turn out to be no more than pieces of paper.

Now the United States is putting the screws on the western Europeans. First came the efforts tostop the Brazilian and Pakistan deals. Then the ultimatum to re-negotiate the US-Euratom agreement, backed up by the threat of cutting off uranium supplies. The Nine were forced to tackle the issue at their "summit" of heads of government, only a day before the ultimatum ran out - and agreed to re-negotiate. But within days a major deal was announced for re-processing German waste at La Hague.

The French, as usual cynical about American idealist motivations, argue that the U.S., with its own safe uranium supplies, is simply trying to undermine Western Europe's economic competitivity. All three governments tend to argue, equally cynically, that proliferation will happen anyway, so why should they accept empty sacrifices for the sake of Jimmy Carter's Puritan conscience. This sort of attitude is re-inforced by the news that India is talking of bucking the US policy and doing its own re-processing. Since US and Canadian policy may not succeed in stopping re-processing, and could change anyway, local opposition remains important. But what happened over Windscale iconfirms how determined the governments are. There has been a two-and-a-half year campaign against the new Windscale re-processing plant. During a public enquiry that lasted five months, frightening evidence was given of accident dangers, health hazards and threats to civil liberties associated with the present plant, and the proliferation argument was driven home. But the "independent" report favoured proceeding at once with the plant. Parliament is likely to endorse this even though the obvious unfairness of the report has embarassed the government, and it has been admitted that the report's arguments about proliferation are wrong.

Weakest link

Re-processing and waste disposal are the weakest link in the atomic establishment's defences. Dangerous waste is piling up (100 tonnes a month in the US alone), and it has to be either re-processed (which produces more waste anyway, plus stock-piles of plutonium!) or disposed of. There is no third possibility. And as a report to the Californian government has just rammed home, in neither case are the techniques ready, or even within sight of being ready. Ordinary citizens may still be sceptical about the dangers from atomic reactors (at least until one is planned where they live!), but there is a widespread fear both of nuclear waste (one word the technocrats forgot to neutralize !) and of plutonium. Not only the coming demos against re-processing, but this year's world-wide mobilisation against the nuclear danger, will help bring home the facts. For the foreseeable future, we face a world-wide build-up of dangerous waste. To get us to accept this, we are being offered a "choice" between theoretically safe disposal, and "re-processing" that will usher in the plutonium era.

Plutonium makers

An atomic reactor is like a wood stove: burned up fuel has to be removed regularly. It can be treated as waste - which for the moment no-one in the world knows what to do with. Or it can be "re-processed".

That is the kind of re-assuring, neutral, non-informative word that nuclear technocrats have always chosen. In the military programmes of World War Two and after, it was known, more honestly, as "plutonium separation". The reactors in those programmes (graphite gas and heavy water cooled) served only to produce bomb-grade plutonium.

So they operated at low temperatures, had a low "burn-up" of enriched uranium (less than 1000 MW days/ton), and used metallic fuel, which was easy to dissolve chemically to extract the plutonium. Reactors used for electricity production have to produce maximum heat, so the burn-up is 12-20 times higher; the used fuel lsvery highly irradiated; and the re-processing plants thus have to be bigger and more complex, and are more dangerous. The light water reactors the western Europeans have finished up with (thanks to the commercial superiority of General Electric and Westinghouse), use oxide fuel, and the techniques of separating out plutonium from it have not been fully mastered.

Bombs are usually made from high-grade plutonium (it needs 5-6 kgs), but they can be made from the plutonium derived from highly burned up fuel (it needs about 20 kgs). These are "dirty bombs", which produce a "less efficient" explosion - and would scatterfarmore plutonium into the atmosphere. It is these that it will be easier for Iran, Brazil and Pakistan to make, if the German Federal Republic and France supply them with re-processing plants.

An unproven technology

Re-processing may be a vital part of the atomic fuel cycle: the technology is hardly the most successful...

The first plant in the United States for retreating oxide fuels, at West Valley, New York, opened in 1966, treated 630 tons in 6 years before being closed in 1972 for expansion, and never re-opened again because it could not meet ever-stricter safety norms, especially about earthquake risks. The cost of re-processing, $ 23.50/kg in 1966, would have been $ 1100/kg had it re-opened after 1972. The West Valley heritage is 2300 m3 of highly radio-active waste, in vats guaranteed for 40 years...

Plant no 2 was planned by General Electric at Midwest, Illinois, but owing to tougher environmental requirements they wrote it off in 1974 as unusable. No 3 at Barnwell, South Caroline (Allied Gulf Nuclear Services), authorised in 1970, was due to handle 1500 t/year. The section for reprocessing plutonium oxide has been judged not developed enough for use.

The Soviet-Union re-processes oxide fuel with a burn-up of 20.000 MW days/ton. It is suggested by western sources that the explosion at a Soviet bomb plant in 1958, which according to Zhores Medvadev irradiated 10000s of people and killed hundreds, occurred during re-processing or plutonium separation; Medvadev thinks it arose from concentration of radioactive gases round badly stored waste.

In the United Kingdom, the Windscale plant has processed metal uranium since the 1950's. In 1968 part began to be converted to treat 300 t. of uranium oxide fuel/year. A chain reaction in 1970 delayed this, but the section opened in 1972 and treated 120 t. Then there was an accident, with 35 workers lightly irradiated, and the section had to written off until 1978.

Plans are to re-process 400 t./year, but only after all metal uranium waste, which cannot be stored for long. The major plans currently contested are for 2 plants of 1 000 t/y capacity, one for British one for foreign waste.

The La Hague plant (France) has reprocessed metal fuel since 1958. A new section for oxide fuel was due to open in 1974: it finallytreated 15 tons in June 1976. The trade unions say it urgently needs to be closed and made safe. Current plants are to build a new plant to handle waste from Japan, Federal Germany, Sweden, etc. (see below).

On the reactor at Mol (Belgium) see news item below.

There are test reactors in Karlsruhe (opened 1970, treated 29 tons, shut for 2 years ...) and Tokai-Mura (Japan), first due to operate In 1978.

The re-processing plant planned for Gorleben, to handle 1 400 tons a year of very highly irradiated oxide fuel would be 10 to 30 times bigger than anything that has worked so far, anywhere in the world..