Letter to the Editor,
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
I refer to "Funds for Nuclear Reprocessing Set Off Debate", an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 02 January 2006.
Patricla Townsend's article is based on the announcement of a grant to the University of Wisconsin Madison for the development of new technology for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, and it has been brought to the attention of this association of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy (EFN). I would like to try to clarify the issue.
A time scale of five years is mentioned several times, sometimes as too long, sometimes as too short a period. It seems to be the term of the contract awarded to Professor Michael Corradini, a normal period for a large-scale engineering research effort. We are deeply concerned about the future of such processses and we wish him and his colleagues all success in their endeavor.
Like many, Victor Gilinsky has a short-term view - uranium is cheap and abundant (now), so there is no need to contemplate reprocessing. In our view, it is moreorless meaningless to speculate about costs and prices for the decades ahead. The uranium market is currently depressed by a surplus of enriched uranium and plutonium, much of it from decommissioned weapons. When this overhang is absorbed, and after the richer mines are mined out, we shall turn to the fission energy of the abundant U-238 which can only be released in Fast Neutron Reactors. At that time, energy will have become so dear that the cost of reprocessing will be no object.
Harold Feiveson is a respected analyst whose focus is on military aspects of nuclear energy. His concern is that other countries (and perhaps non-country entities) should not be able to procure plutonium with which to fabricate weapons/bombs. That eventuality can be best avoided if plutonium is not physically separated, as it is in the existing PUREX process; in fact, the PUREX process was invented with the explicit purpose of separating pure plutonium from irradiated fuel elements in order to make weapons. Plainly the time has come to develop other processes, such as that proposed by Professor Corradini.
Of course we agree with Feiveson that "there will have to be some planning on what to do with nuclear waste." At this moment it seems to me that the best solution would be on-site storage in dry casks for (many) decades, as he and von Hippel suggest. Eventually our cheap uranium mineral will be exhausted and more expensive mines will have to be opened. The price will then rise high enough to justify the great expense of reprocessing spent fuel. And by then proliferation-resistant schemes for reprocessing should be available and in practice. This will occur perhaps toward mid-century.
Feiveson also points out that we would need to construct perhaps 30 new reactors; this is a small part of future reactor construction. In the US over 100 operating reactors now provide 20% of the electricity. More than 50% of US electricity is provided by coal and about 20% by natural gas producing 100s of millions of tons of CO2 each year. If we undertake a long-term effort to reduce CO2 emissions, and when gas runs out, some large fraction of that fossil fuel will have to be replaced by nuclear. Taken together with the replacement of the existing stock, the US can look foward to the construction of at least 300 reactors between 2010 and 2050 and perhaps 1000. (Professors Pacala and Socolow of Princeton University count on 700GW of nuclear power, - about 500 reactors, say - for one of seven "wedges" needed to reduce CO2 production from here to 2050. See Science Magazine for 13th August 2004)
We should be pleased to elaborate further on this issue, and I am
Yours very truly,
1, rue du Général Gouraud
92190 MEUDON France
téléphone: 01 46 26 02 05 (from France)
+331 4626 0205 (from elsewhere)
The writer is an American physicist (AB Harvard '48, PhD Hopkins '53) and retired science and science education officer of UNESCO - the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. He is a member of the Association des Ecologistes Pour la Nucléaire (AEPN) and president of its American affiliate Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy (EFN). He drives a Prius. Website www.ecolo.org
The Association of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy has over 8000 members and supporters in 56 countries. Among the members of its Scientific Committee are found world leaders in the fields of energy, climate and the protection of the environment.
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