IEER: French Nuclear Reprocessing Model Will Not Solve U.S. Issues

Contrary to some opinions, reprocessing nuclear waste would not eliminate the need for a deep geologic disposal program to replace Yucca Mountain. The volume of waste to be disposed of in deep geologic repository is increased about six times on a life-cycle basis in the French approach compared to the once-through no-reprocessing approach of the United States, according to a report by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), a nonprofit scientific research group.

The report notes that France uses less than 1 percent of the natural uranium resource, contrary to an impression among some policy makers. It also has several recommendations for President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, which was created to address U.S. nuclear waste issues after the administration cancelled the Yucca Mountain program.

IEER President Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D., who also authored the report, said: “In recent years, a ‘French fever’ has gripped the promoters of nuclear power in the United States. Praise of France’s management of spent fuel by reprocessing, including its use of the extracted plutonium as fuel in its nuclear power reactors, is now routinely heard. But it is a fantasy on the scale of the 1950s' ‘too cheap to meter’ mythology about nuclear power to imagine that 90 or 95 percent of the ‘energy value’ of U.S. spent fuel can be extracted by reprocessing.”

Key findings include:

  • On a life-cycle basis, French-style reprocessing and recycle increases the volume of waste. Reprocessing results in high-level radioactive waste and large volumes of Greater than Class C waste, both of which must be managed by deep geologic disposal. Their combined volume is estimated to be about six times more than the no-reprocessing approach that is current U.S. policy, according to Department of Energy estimates. Low-level waste volume and waste transportation shipments are also estimated to increase several-fold.
  • France spends about two cents per kilowatt-hour more for electricity generated from reprocessed plutonium compared to that generated from fresh uranium fuel.
  • Attempting to combine reprocessing with breeder reactors to convert uranium in U.S. spent fuel in plutonium will create intolerable costs and risks. Reprocessing plus breeder reactors are much more expensive than light water reactors today, which are expensive. Such a system is required to convert most of the uranium in spent fuel into a reactor fuel.
  • Adoption of French-style reprocessing program would not eliminate the need for a deep geologic repository. Even complete fissioning of all actinides – an unrealistic proposition – will leave behind large amounts of very long-lived fission and activation products like iodine-129, cesium-135, and chlorine-36 that will pose risks far into the future -- much beyond the 24,100-year half-life of plutonium-239. In fact, France needs a geologic repository and opposition to one has been intense there.

The report recommends:

  • Spent fuel from existing reactors should be slated for direct geologic disposal without reprocessing of any kind; a suitable path for a scientifically sound program should be set forth.
  • In the interim, spent fuel should be stored on site as safely as possible – in low density configurations while in pools and in hardened storage when moved to dry casks.
  • Energy supply R&D resources should be focused on development and deployment of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency.
  • The Commission should request the French company AREVA and/or the French government to supply it with data on the present use of the natural uranium resource purchased for French nuclear reactors, including, specifically, the increases in fission fraction that have actually been achieved by reprocessing and recycling.

The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research provides policy-makers, journalists, and the public with understandable and accurate scientific and technical information on energy and environmental issues. IEER’s aim is to bring scientific excellence to public policy issues in order to promote the democratization of science and a safer, healthier environment.

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