Sustainable Energy

The Best Nuclear Option

The U.S. Energy Department’s fuel-recycling initiative could be a distraction from a more achievable goal: reviving today’s nuclear industry and averting some carbon emissions in the short term.

Imagine a nuclear industry that can power America for decades using its own radioactive garbage, burning up the parts of today’s reactor wastes that are the hardest to dispose of. Add technology that takes nuclear chaff, uranium that was mined and processed but was mostly unusable, and converts it to still more fuel. Then add a global business model that makes it much less likely that reactor by-products such as plutonium will find their way into nuclear weapons in countries like Iran, even as economical nuclear-power technology becomes available to the whole world.

The U.S. Energy Department is promoting far-out waste-recycling technologies requiring new reactor designs. But updated conventional designs like GE’s “economic simplified boiling-water reactor” (shown here) are ready today. (Credit: Bryan Christie)

That is the alluring triple play the Bush administration hopes to turn with the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) it unveiled earlier this year, a proposed long-term research and development program almost as audacious as the Manhattan Project. The basic fuel-reprocessing concepts at its heart have been kicking around for the better part of a half-century. Now they are being touted anew as a way to provide plentiful carbon-free fuel for an energy-hungry world threatened by human-induced climate change.

This story is part of our July/August 2006 Issue
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Under the plan, for which the administration has requested $250 million for the fiscal year beginning October 1, the United States and certain partner countries would process spent nuclear fuel using new techniques that would turn some of it into more fuel and minimize the amount requiring disposal. The United States and its partners would also lease reactor fuel to other countries, which would then return their spent fuel to be reprocessed.

The technology could exploit uranium far more efficiently: Phillip J. Finck, associate director at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, says it could extract up to 100 times as much energy from uranium as is now possible. With the waste now piled up at reactors around the United States, the theory goes, GNEP could produce all the electricity the country will need for decades, maybe even centuries – assuming enough of the necessary new reactors could be built. That would eliminate about a third of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions (roughly the portion that today comes from fossil-fuel power plants). All this while reducing waste and thwarting the diversion of fuel to nuclear weapons.


In practice, though, in the best scenario GNEP would take decades to develop, and in the worst it might produce nothing; it could turn out to be a nonstarter on technical grounds, or the technology could be economically uncompetitive with other carbon-free sources of electricity. And the program could undermine a more modest and achievable goal: resuscitating a nuclear industry that hasn’t launched a successful reactor project since 1974.

Today, a public once wary of nuclear energy has opened up to it as a possible answer to global warming. New reactor designs similar to those used in today’s commercial fleet – but said to be safer and more efficient – are already approved or under review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Utilities are in various stages of planning at least 16 such reactors (see “Stirrings of Renewal” chart) and may file applications with the NRC as early as the end of next year.

Such reactors are the most promising near-term alternative to additional conventional coal plants that produce prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide. But it is uncertain when or if they will be built. If it is to happen, the industry must persuade investors to take a big plunge. That means convincing them that the plants will compete financially with other inherently low-carbon-emitting sources, like wind turbines, or with coal plants that sequester their carbon dioxide – a technology that may be achievable but hasn’t yet been demonstrated (see ” The Dirty Secret ”) . According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a nonprofit utility research organization based in Palo Alto, CA, whose members include owners of coal and nuclear plants, the near-term reactor designs may barely be cheaper than the sequestration technology. And if the United States puts no constraints on carbon emissions, nuclear power will have to keep competing with conventional coal plants.

Meanwhile, the industry is still waiting for a solution to its chief near-term problem: what to do with waste piling up at existing nuclear plants. Skip Bowman, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group, says that without a speedy waste solution, today’s tentative renaissance will “come to a screeching halt.” A company cannot get a license for a new plant without a plan for the waste, and at this point, waiting for the Energy Department to open its long-delayed Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada does not constitute a plan. In this context, Bowman says, GNEP presents a “distraction factor.”

Some academics agree, saying the Energy Department needs to forge a clear nuclear strategy and stick with it. Andrew Kadak, a nuclear engineer at MIT (see ” DOE’s Blurred Nuclear Vision ”) , says the department has followed “zigzag policies.” He counts GNEP as the fifth nuclear initiative in the last five years, citing the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative; Nuclear Power 2010 (an effort to break ground on a new conventional reactor by that year); Generation IV (a new suite of reactor technologies, such as gas-cooled or lead-cooled plants); and the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, which portions of GNEP resemble.

If the Energy Department wants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by promoting the promised revival of nuclear energy, it will have to hurry before power companies fill the market with conventional coal plants that could last 50 years. GNEP may only weaken the department’s focus, adding cost and complexity with new, untried technologies.

Fast Reactors, Slow Progress

GNEP is a very long-term vision; most of the initial $250 million would be spent just to study how the new technologies might work and what they would cost. But its proponents’ thinking is that we need a very long-term vision. The Energy Department predicts that 1,000 nuclear power plants will be running worldwide by midcentury, up from 441 today. And the existing uranium supply, GNEP advocates argue, won’t feed that many reactors.

The size of the uranium supply is in fact unknown, because uranium went through a long period of depressed prices, and not many people have been looking for it lately. According to industry sources, about 3 million tons are known to exist, but another 12 million tons or so may be out there. (An MIT study in 2003 predicted that enough uranium was still available to build 1,000 reactors and run them for 40 years.) To the extent that we may need to stretch this resource, however, GNEP offers a way – at least on paper – to recover vast amounts of additional energy from it.

Existing reactors generate energy through a chain reaction that begins when a free neutron hits an atom of U-235, an isotope of uranium, and splits its nucleus. The split atom throws off two or three neutrons; usually, one splits another U-235 atom, and others are absorbed by atoms of another uranium isotope, U-238, to form plutonium-239 and other transuranic elements (those beyond uranium in the periodic table). These transuranics, along with fission products such as cesium isotopes, are among the components of nuclear waste.

The trouble is, U-235 is a relatively rare isotope; natural uranium consists of about one part U-235 to 142 parts U-238, which is not as easily split. Uranium used for reactors is enriched so that U-235 occurs at a concentration of one part in 20. GNEP would use uranium more efficiently by burning transuranics from spent fuel, after they are separated from the other by-products through reprocessing. It could also exploit some of the U-238. The key would be to develop a new generation of reactors, called “fast reactors.”

Reactors that are cooled by water, as almost all reactors are today, slow the neutrons considerably after they’re released by the chain reaction. But the reactors proposed by GNEP would not; they would use a different material, probably molten metal, to carry off the heat. (Unfortunately, the preferred metal for this purpose – sodium – burns on contact with water or air.) Like a billiard ball shot by a more powerful cue, the neutrons would pack a bigger punch – enough to split some of the U-238 as well as the transuranic isotopes.

The transuranics happen to be among the longest-lived materials in the waste stream, and thus some of the hardest to dispose of. That’s what makes GNEP seem so appealing as not only a climate-change solution but a waste solution, too. Finck says it would theoretically cut the heat and toxicity of what is today considered waste enough to make Yucca Mountain last through this century, instead of being fully booked before the first fuel bundle is buried.

Nuclear-power pioneers in industry and government always assumed that fuel would be reprocessed to recover the plutonium for reuse. Such reprocessing is the way the Manhattan Project gathered plutonium for the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. (The Hiroshima bomb used enriched uranium.) W. R. Grace opened a reprocessing center in West Valley, NY, in 1965 and later sold it to Getty Oil. The plant ran until 1972 and cost more than $1.6 billion to clean up. General Electric tried, too, building a plant in Morris, IL, but it was deemed inoperable in 1974. Then President Carter banned the technology because of proliferation concerns.

GNEP would bring these ideas back from the grave in a much more ambitious form that raises such concerns once more. One worry is the way the bomb-usable material would be extracted from the used fuel. Backers say GNEP would reduce the risk of proliferation, because unlike the old reprocessing techniques, still used in some countries, the new ones would not yield pure plutonium. But today eight kilograms of plutonium – the amount required to make a bomb – is embedded in about a metric ton of highly radioactive waste; in the new system it would be diluted with only a small quantity of other materials. Governments or terrorists would find it far easier to steal the separated material and extract the plutonium, critics say, than they would to recover plutonium from today’s spent nuclear fuel.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, discussing GNEP, promised that it would “respond to the challenges of global terrorism.” The idea is to baby-proof the fuel cycle: countries like Iran could lease fuel enriched to reactor levels – 5 percent U-235 – but not to bomb levels, typically greater than 90 percent U-235. They would send their spent fuel back to more-secure countries for reprocessing and a second go-round inside the advanced reactors. These reactors, which would burn many of the elements produced in the simpler reactors, would be located in stable places like Indiana or Florida – or in countries that already have nuclear weapons.

The resulting “partnership” would make American policy on nuclear technology more similar to that of Russia and France, both of which already separate plutonium. Advocates cite this as an added bonus of a program that, says Finck, “will provide the United States with a long-term, affordable, carbon-free energy source with low environmental impact.”

The GNEP Mirage

But GNEP may be a mirage. For one thing, the sponsors have hardly any idea what it would cost; the $250 million proposed by the Bush administration is for a program that hopes to figure that out. GNEP backers say their technology will expand the supply of nuclear fuel enough to slash carbon emissions virtually forever and allow us to avoid the specter of choosing between global warming and very high-priced energy. It would appear, however, that saving money on nuclear fuel may be practical only if price is no object.

Richard L. Garwin, an IBM fellow emeritus and the coauthor of seven books on nuclear weapons and nuclear power, estimates that existing reprocessing plants like the one operating in France supply reactors with plutonium at a price of approximately $1,000 per kilogram of uranium saved. But the market price of uranium, he points out, is around $100 per kilogram, and it might be at a temporary peak.

Fuel is only part of the cost of nuclear power, and Finck says reprocessing fuel and reusing it in fast reactors would add only about 10 percent to overall power costs. But where even that modest increment would come from is not clear. Frank N. von Hippel, a physicist and policy expert at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, notes that the United States set out to build a fast reactor in the 1970s but dropped the effort in 1983 after France, Germany, and the United Kingdom built them and then abandoned them as too costly and difficult. And once the fast reactors were built, the system envisioned by GNEP might require as many as one of the expensive new reactors for every three ordinary ones, according to sponsors, depending on how effective the new reactors were. Garwin says of the fast reactors, “There is no conception of these things making their way economically.”

“I hope that we’ll have more reactors; I certainly hope the world will have more,” Garwin says, referring to the types that are operating commercially today. “But that will only happen if it looks economically profitable for private industry to get into this area.” And right now a lot of smart money – some of it channeled through the Energy Department – is going not only into that conventional nuclear power but also into other carbon-free energy sources, such as wind, solar, and coal with carbon dioxide sequestration.

EPRI recently analyzed the prices of zero-carbon electricity sources and found that if, as manufacturers claim, new reactors could be built for $1,700 per kilowatt of capacity (less than the cost in the 1980s, even before adjusting for inflation), they would produce electricity at about $49 per megawatt-hour. Although that’s about two-thirds the price of biomass, and half the price of wind, other technologies on the drawing board may do the job for very little more. For about $55 per megawatt-hour, EPRI found, coal could be gasified and burned, and the carbon dioxide sequestered. Power plants running on gasified coal have not been commercialized yet, but conventional pulverized-coal plants could be built that would sequester their carbon dioxide, and they would produce power at about $65 per megawatt-hour. Those technologies are perceived by investors as lower risk, and the United States has hundreds of years’ worth of coal.

In a few years, or a few decades, carbon taxes could be universal in the industrial world, a war in the Persian Gulf could make the price of oil double or triple, and electricity demand could surge – particularly if somebody came up with a better battery that could be mass-produced for electric cars. But even if all those things pushed the world toward zero-carbon energy, we would still be looking for the zero-carbon energy that cost least. That could be nuclear energy, according to EPRI. But Steve Specker, the president of EPRI, expects a “horse race” between different zero-carbon coal technologies.

Playing with Proliferation

Beyond the cost issue, GNEP could reverse a successful strategy against proliferation, say a variety of scientists, including Princeton’s von Hippel. He argues that reprocessing spent nuclear fuel creates too great a risk, even if the plutonium is mixed with small amounts of other materials that do not make good bomb fuel. Not only could plutonium from spent fuel fall into the wrong hands, opponents say, but reprocessing in the United States could encourage other countries to reprocess nuclear waste themselves, making their own by-products available for weapons.

Given that the United States gave up reprocessing in the mid-1970s for that very reason, von Hippel finds it ominous that now, with GNEP, the country could embrace it once more. “The United States has been extraordinarily successful for 30 years in opposing the spread of reprocessing to nonweapons states by making the argument ‘We don’t reprocess; you don’t need to either,’” he says. That’s part of the logic of the 2003 MIT study, “The Future of Nuclear Power,” which concluded that reprocessing as pursued by France, Russia, and Japan did not provide sufficient safeguards against proliferation. It also concluded that the prospect of a uranium shortage wouldn’t be a reason to move to reprocessing in the United States “for many years to come.”

It’s easy to see why the research community is delighted about GNEP. It represents a huge source of funds. It’s a loaves-and-fishes trick for the industrializing world, especially for bureaucrats who would like to redeem the predictions, made by their 1950s predecessors, of power “too cheap to meter.” But GNEP is not relevant to a revival of nuclear power. Utilities abandoned more than 100 reactor projects in the 1970s and ’80s, and only now – spurred by high fossil-fuel prices and a shift in public attitudes – are they thinking of trying again. A fancy fuel cycle meant to support a burgeoning commercial industry is useless if there is no commercial industry. What nuclear power needs is to get up and running soon, supplanting carbon-dioxide-emitting sources in an economical and boring way. Without that, nothing will follow.

Matthew L. Wald, a reporter in the Washington bureau of the New York Times , has written about the nuclear industry for 27 years.

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