VIENNA – U.S. concern over the long-term proliferation risk of nuclear waste isn’t stopping countries from planning to extract plutonium from radioactive refuse to power a new generation of atomic reactors.
French, Japanese, Russian and South Korean officials lined up against their U.S. counterparts in September at the International Atomic Energy Agency, where two weeks of meetings on waste, proliferation and energy ended Monday in Vienna.
“We’ve made it pretty clear that we are not interested or supportive,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said last week at a briefing.
Countries that do move forward with plans to reprocess nuclear waste into new reactor fuel should make sure to keep plutonium inventories at a minimum, he said.
About 8 kg of plutonium are needed to make a nuclear weapon and it’s technically impossible to account for all the material in the biggest reprocessing facilities. With about 50 metric tons of stockpiled weapons-grade plutonium, the U.S. decided in the 1970s not to separate more of the heavy metal for civilian purposes. Other countries are pressing toward a vision that would keep nuclear waste as an asset rather than a liability by stripping it of plutonium.
By reprocessing plutonium “we reduce the amount of waste for disposal and we reduce the footprint of the repository,” Gerald Ouzounian, international director at France’s Radioactive Waste Management Agency, said Sept. 23 at an IAEA panel.
Russia is nearing a decision to begin selling a new generation of reactors that will run on mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel using plutonium, Rosatom’s director of innovation, Vyacheslav Pershukov, told the IAEA. Plutonium processing is also “in the pipeline” for South Korea, the country’s minister of science, Yanghee Choi, said last week.
Japanese plans to start a $21 billion reprocessing plant stoked tensions with China in March after it emerged that more than 9 tons of plutonium were stockpiled without any use after the country’s reactors were shut down following the March 2011 tsunami that wrecked the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
“A major concern” for the U.S. is that plutonium is piling up in Japan without being used to fuel reactors, Moniz said. “Clearly in Japan, until a significant number of nuclear reactors — if and when — are restarted, there will be no end use of the MOX.”
It will be difficult for Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd. to start its reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, as planned in October because it is still under regulatory review, spokesman Yoshi Sasaki said Sept. 24. The company has not decided on a revised start date, he said.
The long-term viability of creating a market for plutonium requires the commercialization of new reactors, said U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Allison MacFarlane. Only Russia’s BN-800 sodium-cooled fast reactor is close to commercialization.
The U.S., which stopped developing fast reactor technologies in the 1990s, prefers direct disposal of nuclear waste rather than reprocessing.
“You do have a proliferation issue with the kind of reprocessing that is practiced by France and some other countries,” MacFarlane said at the IAEA. “By directly disposing you don’t develop that large proliferation hazard.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.