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Nuclear News - Nuclear Monitor #808

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Plutonium separation in nuclear power programs

The International Panel on Fissile Material has produced an important report on plutonium separation / reprocessing programs around the world. The 182-page report has contributions from 11 experts around the world.

The report considers reprocessing programs in China, France, India, Japan, Russia and the UK. It also considers the rise and fall of reprocessing in Germany, and the agitation in South Korea for starting a reprocessing program. There are also three technical chapters assessing: the utility of reprocessing for managing spent nuclear fuel; the economics of reprocessing and plutonium use; and the radiological risk from reprocessing plants.

The report considers related issues such as fast breeder reactors, noting that 'demonstration' breeder reactors in France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the UK were found to be both more costly than conventional reactors and less reliable, with most operating only a small fraction of the time. Only India and Russia have continued with demonstration breeder reactor programs. Reprocessing continued in France, Japan and the UK, however, and China built a pilot reprocessing plant that operated briefly in 2010.

The UK built a reprocessing plant for foreign customers, but virtually no customers renewed their contracts and the UK expects to end its reprocessing program as soon as its existing contracts are fulfilled − around 2020. France is continuing to reprocess for the time being, but its government-owned utility, Electricite de France, has been demanding cost reductions and this has made more gloomy the financial prospects of AREVA, the government-owned company that operates France's reprocessing plant.

Japan, the only non-weapon state that reprocesses today, has built a large reprocessing plant at Rokkasho whose operation has been delayed two decades by various technical problems. It has become hugely costly and, if it operates, is expected to increase the electricity bills of Japan's ratepayers by about US$100 billion (€90b) over the next 40 years.

The report also discusses efforts to revive and reinvent reprocessing:

"In recent decades, an additional rationale has been offered for reprocessing: that it would facilitate spent-fuel management. The argument is that plutonium and the other transuranic elements in spent fuel should be fissioned into mostly shorter half-life radioisotopes to reduce the long-term hazard from spent fuel. The reactors being proposed are modified versions of the costly and unreliable sodium-cooled reactors that previously were proposed for plutonium breeding because they would efficiently fission all these isotopes − not just some, as water-cooled reactors do. This argument for continued reprocessing has been challenged, however, by radioactive waste experts in France and Japan and by a comprehensive study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. A risk assessment for Sweden's proposed spent fuel repository found that the radioactive doses on the surface from hypothetical leakage 100,000 years after burial would not be dominated by plutonium because transuranic elements are relatively insoluble in water that is found deep underground where the water's oxygen content is depleted due to chemical reactions with the surrounding rock.

"Reprocessing, in fact, increases rather than reduces the risk from the radioactivity contained in spent fuel because of routine releases to the environment during reprocessing and the possibility of potentially catastrophic releases from reprocessing plants as a result of accidents or attacks on their huge spent fuel intake pools or the tanks in which the liquid high-level waste from reprocessing is stored. Reprocessing also leaves two costly and dangerous legacies: reprocessing complexes that are contaminated with radioactive materials, and a steady build-up of a global stockpile of separated civilian plutonium that is currently estimated as being sufficient for more than 30,000 nuclear bombs.

"As all these problems with reprocessing have become more widely appreciated, there has been a steady decline in the number of countries that reprocess − currently six − and this trend is likely to continue. The decline has not been as rapid as warranted by the magnitude of the problems confronting reprocessing because of resistance from entrenched bureaucracies that have sought to sustain national commitments to separating plutonium and, often, breeder reactors. Nevertheless, as this global overview of reprocessing shows, the world is closer to the end of separating plutonium and the associated security, economic and environmental dangers."

International Panel on Fissile Material, July 2015, 'Plutonium Separation in Nuclear Power Programs. Status, Problems, and Prospects of Civilian Reprocessing Around the World',

Funding decrease for Generation IV R&D

Funding has decreased for some Generation IV reactor systems, notably gas-cooled fast reactor (GFR) systems, and progress has slowed, according to the 2014 annual report of the Generation IV International Forum (GIF).

"Funding for some of the Generation IV reactor systems has decreased, thereby slowing down progress," the report states.

GFR R&D made little progress in 2014, in part because of "significantly decreased budgets supporting the system," the report states. Countries involved in GFR research are now discussing ways to continue R&D, possibly through synergies with other systems.

GIF was created in January 2000 by nine countries. It now has 12 member countries plus Euratom, though three of the countries are inactive members.

GIF chair John Kelly said there had been progress in 2014 on five of the systems and progress had also been made on "the implementation of evaluation methodologies" and on "a new course of outreach" with the international regulatory community that will eventually licence Generation IV reactors.

In April, France's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN) said the sodium-cooled fast reactor system is the only one of six being considered by GIF that has reached a degree of maturity compatible with the construction of a prototype during the first half of the 21st century.

GIF said earlier this year that for real long-term progress to be made in Generation IV development, advanced research facilities need to be built and the industry must become more involved.

Generation IV International Forum, Annual Report 2014,

Nuclear industry myths

Nuclear 'insider' Steve Kidd has written an interesting article about some of the nuclear industry's self-serving myths in the Nuclear Engineering International magazine. Now an independent nuclear consultant and economist, Kidd worked for nearly 18 years with the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.

Kidd states: "Examining the agendas at nuclear conferences and the speeches of key leaders shows that many people in the industry are somewhat deluded. They either don't think carefully about the key issues or else simply choose to ignore many years of evidence that fails to support their beliefs."

He then debunks the following four myths:

Financing barriers:

"[T]here is no unique financing mechanism that the relevant institutions can come up with to rescue a nuclear project that has questionable returns or too high a degree of risk for investors. This is the real problem: nuclear projects have largely become too expensive and risky to offer lenders the degree of assurance they require. ... Even with government incentives such as loan guarantees, fixed electricity prices and certain power offtake, nuclear projects today struggle to make economic sense, at least in the developed world. ... World interest rates are currently low, which removes one disadvantage of capital intensive projects. These low rates indicate that there is funding available but a possible shortage of viable projects."

Small modular reactors:

"Assuming they are technically viable, the smaller capital expenditure needed to build a largely factory-built smaller unit and the shorter construction period are certainly attractive features. ... Lower cost, however, doesn't necessarily mean better economics. ... The jury is still out on SMRs, but unless the regulatory system in potential markets can be adapted to make their construction and operation much cheaper than for large LWRs, they are unlikely to become more than a niche product. Even if the costs of construction can be cut with series production, the potential O&M [operating and maintenance] costs are a concern. A substantial part of these are fixed, irrespective of the size of reactor."

Nuclear growth in the developing world:

"[M]any developing countries have expressed a wish to establish nuclear power programmes. ... But on current trends very few of them are likely to do so and for the same reasons that nuclear power has stalled in the most of the rest of the world. Although there are additional issues with new countries identified by the IAEA, such as the need to establish an independent regulator and to develop adequate human resources, these can be overcome if a country is determined to do so. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is showing what can be achieved, but in most of the so-called emerging nuclear countries, the effort is rather half-hearted. ... The fundamental problem is that nuclear in these countries suffers from the same public acceptance and economic problems as elsewhere. ... The problems experienced in getting the Indian nuclear programme to the level desired by the national planners are instructive and are just as relevant to the Middle East and South East Asia, the most promising regions for potential new nuclear countries. ... Maybe only three or four countries will get their first operating nuclear stations by 2030."

Environmental credentials:

"The final myth is that the world will start building lots of nuclear power stations to help counter climate change, as it becomes accepted as a green technology. The industry is grasping at a very thin straw. That may be because the COP-21 conference will be held in Paris this December, aiming to establish achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate from all the nations of the world, but it is hardly excusable. All past evidence (which the industry chooses to ignore) demonstrates that nuclear will once again get chewed up and marginalised in the process."

Steve Kidd, 11 June 2015, 'Nuclear myths – is the industry also guilty?',

Don't Nuke the Climate – the lies of EDF

Among the industry sponsors of the UN COP21 climate talks in Paris (December), one especially deserves an award in greenwashing, namely Electricite de France (EDF). The company runs all the French nuclear power plants, including Fessenheim. This oldest French nuclear power station, close to the border with Germany in the Alsace region, has been criticized for many years on both banks of the Rhine for its lack of safety. In response, EDF had been displaying since 2011 a piece of greenwashing on its website: an illustration describing 100% of the electricity produced in the Alsace as carbon-free, thanks to Fessenheim and renewables.

To debunk this lie, the French antinuclear network "Sortir du nucléaire" and four Alsacian groups filed a complaint by the "Jury de déontologie Publicitaire", a committee on advertisement ethics.

On July 3, this panel issued a notice ruling that EDF's statement was too ambiguous and potentially misleading: even if the CO2 emissions in Alsace were low, nuclear electricity is not carbon-free.

Even if EDF is not yet forced to give up using the 'carbon-free' argument, the advertisement has been withdrawn since. This victory will help us fight the big pro-nuclear propaganda we are expecting during COP21.

More information (in French):

Sign the petition demanding the closure of the Fessenheim reactor:

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