Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Truth About Nuclear Power - Part 18

Subtitle:  Reprocessing Spent Fuel Is Not Safe

Why reprocess spent fuel?  There are at least two reasons, 1) to re-use the material that can be re-used in a nuclear reactor.  This eliminates or reduces the need to purchase new fuel.  2) to concentrate the long-lived radioactive isotopes, which reduces the amount of material required to be stored long-term.  

Previous articles on The Truth About Nuclear Power emphasized the economic aspect by showing that (one) modern nuclear power plants are uneconomic to operate compared to natural gas and wind energy, (two) they produce preposterous pricing if they are the sole power source for a grid, (three) they cost far too much to construct, (four) use far more water for cooling, 4 times as much, than better alternatives, (five) nuclear fuel makes them difficult to shut down and requires very costly safeguards, (six) they are built to huge scale of 1,000 to 1,600 MWe or greater to attempt to reduce costs via economy of scale, (seven) an all-nuclear grid will lose customers to self-generation, (eight) smaller and modular nuclear plants have no benefits due to reverse economy of scale, (nine) large-scale plants have very long construction schedules even without lawsuits that delay construction, (ten) nuclear plants do not reach 50 or 60 years life because they require costly upgrades after 20 to 30 years that do not always perform as designed, (eleven) France has 85 percent of its electricity produced via nuclear power but it is subsidized, is still almost twice as expensive as prices in the US, and is only viable due to exporting power at night rather than throttling back the plants during low demand, (twelve) nuclear plants cannot provide cheap power on small islands, (thirteen) US nuclear plants are heavily subsidized but still cannot compete, (fourteen), projects are cancelled due to unfavorable economics, reactor vendors are desperate for sales, nuclear advocates tout low operating costs and ignore capital costs, nuclear utilities never ask for a rate decrease when building a new nuclear plant, and high nuclear costs are buried in a large customer base, (fifteen) safety regulations are routinely relaxed to allow the plants to continue operating without spending the funds to bring them into compliance, (sixteen) many, many near-misses occur each year in nuclear power, approximately one every 3 weeks, (seventeen) safety issues with short term, and long-term, storage of spent fuel, (eighteen)  safety hazards of spent fuel reprocessing, (nineteen) health effects on people and other living things, (twenty) nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, (twenty-one) nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, (twenty-two)  nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima, (twenty-three) near-disaster at San Onofre, (twenty-four) the looming disaster at St. Lucie, (twenty-five)  the inherently unsafe characteristics of nuclear power plants required government shielding from liability, or subsidy, for the costs of a nuclear accident via the Price-Anderson Act, and (twenty-six) the serious public impacts of large-scale population evacuation and relocation after a major incident, or "extraordinary nuclear occurrence" in the language used by the Price-Anderson Act.  Additional articles will include (twenty-seven) the future of nuclear fusion, (twenty-eight) future of thorium reactors, (twenty-nine) future of high-temperature gas nuclear reactors, and (thirty), a concluding chapter with a world-wide economic analysis of nuclear reactors and why countries build them.  Links to each article in TANP series are included at the end of this article. 

Economic Issues

The economic incentive to reprocess is actually puzzling because, as nuclear advocates insist, the fuel is ultra-cheap as it is.  Nuclear advocates preach on and on that nuclear power is cheaper than anything else because the fuel itself is so cheap compared to the amount of power produced.  If that is the case, then why would anyone want to reprocess the spent fuel?  Surely it must be cheaper to purchase new fuel.  

But, as shown in another post on SLB, nuclear fuel as uranium really is not as abundant as some believe.  see link.   In addition, finding enough suitable reactor sites with adequate cooling water is a serious problem with no solution.  Furthermore, the start of decommissioning hundreds of reactors per year and disposing of all the spent fuel and radioactive metal creates an intractable problem.  

France and other countries reprocess their spent fuel.  Yet France has higher electricity prices than does the USA, even though France’s electrical industry is subsidized.  See earlier article on France and nuclear, see link.  Perhaps reprocessing is not quite the economic dream that the nuclear advocates insist that it is. 

More on costs: to reprocess the spent fuel, it must be transported from nuclear power plants to reprocessing facilities.  One could, of course, build a reprocessing plant at each nuclear plant, but the economy of scale works against that.   A few, large reprocessing plants would have economy of scale working in their favor.  Transport costs would be high, if transport is to be done safely. 

Safety Issues

Packaging and transporting spent fuel safely is a serious problem.  If transported by truck, more trucks on the road will increase congestion and accidents.  Even if the nuclear fuel survives the collision intact in its containers, emergency workers will evacuate the population until the area is determined to be safe.  Media will have a frenzy over a nuclear-fuel accident.   The same is true for rail transport.  As has been seen recently with transporting oil by rail, more accidents occur.   It is unlikely that the nuclear power industry will welcome the increased adverse publicity and negative public relations generated by spent nuclear fuel transport accidents. 

Processing the spent fuel creates more opportunities for leaks, spills, and radiation exposure to workers.  The existing reprocessing plants in the US already have had radiation exposure accidents. 

A problem already exists in accounting for high-level radioactive wastes and ensuring the waste is not diverted to illegal activities such as dirty bombs or terrorism.   Increasing the amount reprocessed, year after year, only increases the safety issues. 

Long-term storage of high-level radioactive wastes is also required, no matter how much or how little the mass to be stored is.  Thousands of years is required for storage until the radiation level is sufficiently safe.   

An alternative to storage is using some of the separated plutonium, mixed with uranium, for reactor fuel known as MOX.  At least one of the Fukushima reactors that melted down had some MOX fuel.   This creates yet another, more severe hazard, when meltdowns occur as they inevitably will. 

Liability Issues 

Nuclear wastes such as spent nuclear fuel are classified by law as ultrahazardous.  With very, very few exceptions, any injury caused by handling, storing, or using spent nuclear fuel creates liability for the owner of the spent fuel.  Reprocessing, including transport and the resultant accidents, will increase the number of lawsuits that owners must defend. 


Reprocessing spent fuel makes no economic sense.  Reprocessing also increase the risk of radiation exposure through transportation, the separation process itself.  The long-term issue of storage of high-level waste remains.   These are yet more truths about nuclear power. 

Previous articles in the Truth About Nuclear Power series are found at the following links.  Additional articles will be linked as they are published. 

Roger E. Sowell, Esq. 
Marina del Rey, California


Keith Woodward said...

Mr Sowell,
What ever your back ground may be you certainly don't know much about nuclear power and the dangers acssociated with it. You do this country (and this planet) a disservice by publishing this false narrative, why don't take some time to study the facts involved in this very useful technology that in fact is the only hope to save this planet?

Roger Sowell said...

Woodward is a prime example of the low-information nuclear advocate: makes generalized comments with zero supporting data.

I invite Woodward to refute any of the more than 200 factual assertions already listed on The Truth About Nuclear Power series, with but 18 of the 30 or more articles published at this time.

Nuclear advocates are typically those who refuse to acknowledge, or simply do not know, the facts about nuclear power: it is uneconomic in any form, and dangerous in every form. It increases electricity prices and creates immense toxic, radioactive disposal hazards for many generations to come. There is zero place for nuclear power as an electricity source on this planet.

Roger Sowell said...

As to my qualifications, these are posted at the bottom of Article One of TANP. I hold a BS in Chemical Engineering and am a licensed attorney. I practice in the field of Science and Technology.

These articles draw on my deep experience in chemical process engineering, my university classroom studies of nuclear engineering theory and design, decades as a practicing process engineer and consulting engineer, justifying then designing and implementing a private power plant to prevent rising power prices from shutting down my company's chemical plant, and understanding the legal requirements for utilities and nuclear plants. I also had the privilege of a comprehensive guided tour of the Perry Nuclear Plant in Ohio, conducted by the plant manager, when the plant was completed but had not yet had the first load of fuel installed. Many friends and colleagues encouraged me to write these articles on nuclear power, since it appears I may be one of the few who have the combination of training, experience. and willingness to write on these matters.

Colm Barry said...

Your whole series sums it all up quite succinctly. Yet the yardstick that I always use is: if any of these activities in the whole "chain" were calculably safe it would be insurable. But nowhere in the world exists a full liability cover for these activities (quite unlike with gas, oil, coal etc. power generation). That alone should get even the staunchest proponent thinking.