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Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley [1]
Nuclear Control Institute

Presented to
The Special Panel Session on Spent Fuel Reprocessing
Waste Management 99 Conference
Tucson, Arizona

March 1, 1999


    Who killed the reprocessing industry in the United States? Who is responsible for its death throes elsewhere in the world?

    More than twenty years after enactment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act (NNPA) of 1978, its critics in the nuclear industry still point to its authors as the culprits and to the Act as a colossal policy failure. These critics rehash objections to U.S. "unilateralism" and to the ambiguous outcome of the Carter Administration’s misguided INFCE (International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation) exercise. They point with pride at the commercial reprocessing programs of Europe and Japan, and at the official government policy of these nations to close the nuclear fuel cycle. They blame anti-plutonium obstructionism inspired by the NNPA for the demise of reprocessing and MOX fuel in the United States and for their present difficulties in Europe and Japan.

    In fact, the NNPA was years ahead of its time---a pointer in the right direction. Its central premise, full-scope safeguards as a condition of nuclear supply, not only became the law of the land; it has since become the universally accepted operating principle of the NPT treaty regime. Likewise, its restrictive approach to plutonium commerce anticipated the security threats and the economic liabilities that the plutonium industry faces today.

    Plutonium advocates do not like to acknowledge what actually has happened to the plutonium industry since 1978. It is afflicted with a fatal condition, one with numerous causes. The demise of the fast-breeder reactor (FBR), the original rationale for closing the fuel cycle, was the first and primary etiology.  [2] The United States abandoned its FBR program in 1983 with the cancellation of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. Since then, the major nuclear industrial nations have followed one by one, until today only India, Russia and Japan still plan to develop FBRs. Japan’s program is on hold after a serious sodium leak crippled the experimental Monju FBR in December 1995, and a follow-on demonstration FBR was postponed indefinitely. Russia’s economic crisis will block its FBR development program for the foreseeable future. India’s breeder is essentially a non-starter, [3] and its May 1998 nuclear tests confirmed what the world long suspected: its civilian plutonium facilities (including the U.S./Canadian-supplied CIRUS research reactor) have been a front and a source of material for its nuclear weapons program.  [4]

    Other causes of this terminal disease include substantially diminished prospects for future nuclear power capacity. A quarter-century ago, President Ford’s "Project Independence" energy policy anticipated that 1,000 commercial nuclear power plants would be operating in the United States by the year 2000. One year short of that milestone, less than half that number are operating in the world. As a result, uranium resources and enrichment capacity are cheap and abundant. The enormous capital costs of plutonium fuel cycle facilities have proved to be a millstone around the neck of the nuclear power industry, aggravated by the fact that plutonium mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) is at least four to eight times more expensive than standard low-enriched uranium fuel (LEU).  [5] Finally, there is a growing if somewhat reluctant recognition of the safety and proliferation risks associated with the plutonium fuel cycle.

    The truth of the matter was summed up by a top American utility industry executive who once confided to one of the authors---after cautioning that if quoted by name he’d deny it---that we did the U.S. nuclear power industry a "great favor" by killing off the domestic plutonium industry. (It was actually Ronald Reagan who performed the coup de grace, on economic grounds.)

Status of the Plutonium Fuel Cycle

    The terminal condition of the plutonium industry can be illustrated by briefly examining its status in each of the major nuclear-power nations. Let me begin with the producer states, that is, France, Great Britain, and Russia. Each of these nations maintains a significant state-owned reprocessing industry, primarily to bring in foreign exchange.

    Is it hypocrisy, or mere irony, that Great Britain and Russia do not even load MOX into their own commercial power reactors? Both nations must, as a consequence, maintain enormous surplus stocks of separated civil plutonium (over 54 tons in Great Britain, [6] and over 30 tons in Russia [7]), with no firm plans for their disposition. Great Britain withdrew its support for development of a European FBR, and has shut down its own experimental breeder reactor and the associated reprocessing plant in Dounreay, Scotland. It has even decided against using MOX fuel in its single light-water reactor, which unlike British gas reactors, is presumably suitable for MOX use.

    Russia’s FBR program languishes for lack of capital; nor does Russia have funds to complete construction of the RT-2 reprocessing plant at Krasnoyarsk. Last November, Minatom First Deputy Minister Ivanov predicted that it may take two decades to commercialize the technology required to reprocess spent fuel from Russia’s more modern VVER-1000 reactors, and that Russia would rely on dry storage in the meantime.   [8] This year, according to a trade press report, "Russia has launched a government-wide campaign to reprocess spent fuel from around the world, including the United States," but there are no indications that Minatom is close to signing any new contracts.  [9] Russia plans to fuel light-water reactors (LWRs) with MOX fuel as a means of disposing of warhead plutonium, but insists on acquiring outside funding to cover the entire cost of this project.  [10] To date, the United States has pledged $200 million to help implement warhead-plutonium disposition in Russia,  [11] a sum far short of the total amount required. France and Germany have pledged cooperation in construction of a MOX fuel-fabrication plant in Russia, but not surprisingly, are refusing to put up the money to build it. Nor has anyone offered to guarantee the $45 billion total life-cycle cost of operating Russian VVER-1000 reactors to irradiate MOX fuel,  [12] or for that matter the $120 to $180 million that would be required to upgrade each of the reactors to Western safety standards. [13]

    France, despite a long-standing commitment to close its fuel cycle, canceled its own breeder-reactor development program.  After a series of technical problems, shutdowns and sodium coolant leaks, the Superphenix FBR has been permanently shut down and now awaits decommissioning.  [14]   France also has been extremely slow to use plutonium in light-water reactors. Indeed, a Socialist-Green election platform in early 1997 called for a moratorium on further MOX fabrication, and license applications for eight more reactors to use MOX were put on hold.  [15] Nor is France in any hurry to reprocess domestic spent fuel from its national electric utility, Electricite de France (EDF). Most reprocessing has been of foreign spent fuel, thus making it clear that France’s reprocessing industry, like Britain’s, is intended primarily to be a major foreign-exchange earner. Indeed, in 1995 EDF changed its bookkeeping practices to assign an economic value of zero to its own plutonium stocks.  [16]

    Of the consumer states, Japan has the most ambitious plutonium fuel cycle plans, but they continue to be set back by accidents, scandals and delays. As noted, the FBR program was left in limbo by the Monju accident. Efforts by investigators to cover up and doctor evidence from the Monju FBR and Tokai reprocessing plant accidents led to the dismantlement of the Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (PNC), which had been in charge of FBR development in Japan. In October 1998, data used to certify Kansai Electric’s MOX fuel transportation cask was found to have been falsified, and the cask is now undergoing relicensing. Construction of a large reprocessing plant at Rokkasho-mura is still not complete, and it is now estimated that the project’s total cost will top $18 billion.  [17] The first shipment of MOX fuel from Europe to Japan may occur sometime this year, but the national government has only granted final approval for MOX to be loaded into two of the four LWRs selected to initiate the "Pluthermal" program. Nor have the governors of two of the three prefectures where these reactors are located given their approval.  [18]

    Germany is now in the forefront of rethinking of the plutonium fuel cycle. Some years ago, the Kalkar FBR and Wackersdorf reprocessing plant projects were canceled, because of strong public opposition. In 1995, Siemens was forced to abandon plans to operate its near-complete MOX fuel fabrication plant at Hanau because of technical violations and local political opposition. Current developments in Germany illustrate the lengths to which the plutonium industry and bureaucracy will go to maintain its base in the absence of market demand for its product. The "Red-Green" coalition won the federal election last October on a platform that called for phasing out nuclear power and reprocessing. By mid-January, the Social Democrats and Greens had agreed on a draft revision of the German Atomic Energy Act that would outlaw reprocessing of spent fuel beginning in 2000.  [19] The German utilities’ post-2000 reprocessing contracts contained force majeure clauses allowing their termination in case of a decision by the German government that reprocessing is unnecessary or undesirable. Nonetheless, Cogema (the government-owned French reprocessing company) argued that a 1990 Franco-German exchange of notes, requiring that neither government interfere in reprocessing, had the force of a treaty and "cannot be overruled by a law."   [20] As a result, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pressed Environment Minister Juergen Trittin to remove the reprocessing ban from the draft nuclear law, which he did.  [21] At this point, it is not clear how the German government will proceed on the reprocessing question, given the approximately 30 tons of separated plutonium already being stored in Britain and France [22] and the strong public opposition to its use as MOX fuel, as well as to any further separation of plutonium from German spent fuel in French and British reprocessing plants.

    Belgium and Switzerland each plan to irradiate small amounts of MOX fuel to deal with plutonium recovered from their spent fuel under old reprocessing contracts, but do not plan to continue to use plutonium fuel thereafter. In fact, the Belgian government recently canceled a major post-2000 reprocessing contract with Cogema and began a year-long review of its spent-fuel management policy.  [23]

    The third category, future candidate states, includes nations such as South Korea, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China. These states have growing nuclear power sectors, and are attempting to develop policies to deal with the back end of the fuel cycle. Over the last several years, both South Korea and Taiwan have expressed interest in exploring reprocessing and MOX options, and Cogema, BNFL, and Minatom have aggressively sought their business despite U.S. opposition to the recovery of plutonium from fuel originally supplied by the United States to South Korea and Taiwan.   [24] The People’s Republic of China has begun construction of a small reprocessing plant, which it hopes to complete by next year.  [25] Nuclear utility and government officials in these candidate states should be paying close attention to the plutonium quagmire that Europe and Japan now find themselves in.

    There are some common threads among these twists and turns of policy. First, the producer states either do not utilize FBRs at all, and as for utilizing MOX fuel in LWRs, they either do not use it at all, or not to a great extent.   But they nonetheless continue to market plutonium technologies and services aggressively to the consumer and candidate states.

    Second, nuclear electric utilities in consumer states do not welcome plutonium fuel.  They would be opting out of the closed fuel cycle if they were not subject to severe pressure from domestic and foreign plutonium interests.  Such pressure takes the form of being held to reprocessing contracts the utilities no longer want or need and being subjected to a form of blackmail---the threatened, en masse return of spent fuel if they seek to cancel reprocessing contracts.

    The utilities now understand too well that they shoulder far greater risks and expense with MOX fuel than with conventional uranium fuel. That is why no new reprocessing contracts are being signed, despite the fact that the price of such contracts has dropped by nearly fifty percent over the last decade. That is also why BNFL, the government-owned British plutonium company, has been unwilling to "market test" its 54-ton stockpile of surplus separated plutonium---that is, to offer it to customers for fabrication into MOX, instead of separating yet more unwanted plutonium at its Sellafield reprocessing plant. [26]

    Plutonium simply makes no sense, especially in the increasingly deregulated electricity market that nuclear utilities now find themselves in. There is no market for plutonium when nuclear utilities must compete against cheaper sources of electrical power.

What About the United States?

    The United States, neither a producer nor a consumer of commercial plutonium fuel-cycle services, still retains a unique position of global influence on the issue. One-quarter of the world’s nuclear power plants are located in the United States, as are the hundreds of thousands of tons of spent fuel generated by these reactors. The United States is also the largest supplier of uranium enrichment and fuel-fabrication services. It exercises "consent rights" under the terms of the NNPA to permit or prohibit the separation of plutonium from vast amounts of foreign spent fuel containing "U.S.-origin" uranium. The Department of Energy’s Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation characterized this influence in a recent nonproliferation assessment.

Because of its pivotal role in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and its own extensive nuclear programs and activities, the manner in which the United States manages its nuclear materials has an influence on other states, both by example and in the way it supports U.S. diplomatic efforts and initiatives. U.S. technical and policy choices frequently influence other countries. Thus, management decisions taken in the United States can positively or negatively affect initiatives to further enhance the global nonproliferation regime and bolster the international norm against the acquisition of nuclear weapons.  [27]

    There are now no elements of a commercial plutonium fuel cycle (reprocessing, MOX fuel fabrication or irradiation) operating in the United States. U.S. nuclear electric utilities abandoned efforts to develop such a fuel cycle more than a decade ago. However, the European plutonium industry is now avidly attempting to penetrate this largest potential market for its services. As other members of today’s panel can attest, BNFL and Cogema have each established a major corporate presence in the United States.

    One attempt to break into the U.S. market came in late 1992, when the Long Island Power Authority attempted to enter into a contract with Cogema to reprocess the slightly irradiated initial core of the defunct Shoreham reactor before decommissioning. Ultimately the export of the fuel to France was disapproved by the Executive Branch, but only after the Nuclear Control Institute intervened in NRCexport licensing proceedings, and after Defense Department officials objected after being denied an appropriate opportunity as required by U.S. law to review the proposed export.

    British and French reprocessors are likely to make further attempts to win reprocessing contracts as additional U.S. reactors permanently shut down (Maine Yankee, for example), and as DOE’s inability to accept utilities’ spent fuel for final disposal in a repository, as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1992, compels utilities to face the issue of crowded spent-fuel pools at reactor sites. While getting rid of spent fuel may seem attractive to American nuclear utilities, taking back separated plutonium and vitrified reprocessing waste will not be welcomed at all. Nor will Britain and France be willing to store surplus plutonium and the waste byproducts indefinitely.

    Despite these problems, plutonium has found some powerful friends on Capitol Hill. One of the most influential has been Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, chair of the Senate Budget Committee and the Energy Appropriations Subcommittee. Senator Domenici holds that the United States should abandon its no-reprocessing policy.

The 1977 decision by the United States to halt research into reprocessing and mixed-oxide fuel did not curtail other countries’ pursuit of these technologies. Now the United States is unable to use these technologies to meet urgent energy or nonproliferation needs and has been largely left out of international nuclear fuel cycle issues .Reprocessing---even limited reprocessing---could help mitigate the potential hazards in a repository, and could help us recover the energy content of the spent fuel. [28]

    Such plutonium evangelism was also evident in a provision of S. 1271, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1996, which would have allowed U.S. utilities to ship their spent fuel overseas for reprocessing on an emergency-relief basis. [29] This provision was removed after NCI and a coalition of public-interest groups objected to it as a major breach of U.S. non-proliferation policy. Nuclear-waste bills introduced in subsequent sessions of Congress, including the current one, have emphasized centralized interim storage prior to completion of a geologic repository. In our opinion, centralized storage is unwise because it could add an additional transportation stage if a final repository next to the proposed storage site (presently Yucca Mountain in Nevada) fails to open. Also, centralized storage of spent fuel could be an invitation to future reprocessing, especially if the initial attempt at final disposal does not work out as planned.

    Meanwhile, large-scale non-commercial reprocessing continues in the F and H canyons at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The materials being reprocessed are mostly defense-related. They include residual waste materials being stabilized pending their disposition, as well as some fuel and targets from defense programs and research reactors.  [30] There is no definite timetable for canyon shutdown, and various reprocessing campaigns proposed by DOE could delay closure of the canyons until 2035.  [31]

    The canyons do not now reprocess spent commercial nuclear power fuel, but Westinghouse did prepare an economic analysis of just such an option, in response to a request by Representative Norwood of Georgia.  [32] This alternative has never been formally ruled out, and could be revived if the political winds proved more favorable in the future. But even DOE, not noted for its enthusiastic implementation of  U.S. non-proliferation policy on plutonium, is on record as recognizing that continued reprocessing of DOE's non-commercial spent fuel in the SRS canyons could send the wrong signal to the rest of the world about U.S. efforts to discourage use of plutonium.

A decision to reprocess the aluminum-based spent nuclear fuel at the Savannah River Site could negatively affect the credibility of U.S. policy not to encourage reprocessing. First, as long as the United States continues to operate some reprocessing facilities, reprocessing advocates in other countries will point to this activity and argue that even the United States understands the need for reprocessing in some circumstances. A decision to reprocess this material would extend the time that reprocessing operations must continue at the Savannah River Site.  [33]

   With regard to the aluminum-based spent fuel, DOE to its credit is attempting (despite considerable resistance among some reprocessing enthusiasts at the Savannah River Site) to develop and implement an alternative to reprocessing, known as "melt and dilute."

    On the other hand, the U.S. Government is giving its full support to a plan to introduce MOX fuel into U.S. nuclear power plants, despite a warning by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency that this approach could send precisely the wrong signal to the rest of the world.  [34] The Clinton administration has devised a "two-track" approach for disposing of weapons plutonium that includes turning most of the surplus plutonium (at least 33 tons) into MOX fuel. The second track is to dispose of some of the plutonium by combining it with (and thereby "immobilizing" it in) highly radioactive waste. Proponents insist this two-track, MOX-and-immobilization approach is the only way to win the cooperation of Russia, which loves plutonium and won't think of throwing it away.  They also claim that those who oppose any use of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in a plutonium disposal plan are relying on simple ideological positions. [35]

    But a one-track approach that treats plutonium as waste cannot be so neatly dismissed. It is practical. DOE acknowledges that immobilization can do the whole job, while MOX cannot. All surplus plutonium, pure and impure, can be immobilized in waste while only the purest forms can be turned into MOX fuel. The waste approach is fast, cheap and efficient, compared with MOX. Concentrating limited resources on validating immobilization in both the United States and Russia would help, not hinder, the pace and scope of the disposal effort.

    Nonetheless, DOE is expected to award a contract for the MOX portion of the plutonium disposition program sometime next month. The only consortium that remains in the running includes Cogema, which would build the MOX fabrication plant, and Duke Power and Virginia Power, which would irradiate the warhead-plutonium MOX fuel in nuclear power plants in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

    The MOX approach presents two sets of problems that U.S. utilities and their customers have been spared thus far. First, the MOX option presents greater risks of diversion and theft of plutonium primarily because of the fuel-fabrication stage, a process that is difficult to safeguard effectively, and because of the need to transport MOX fuel long distances to reactors. Uncertain verification, an especially acute problem in Russia, could severely limit the trust nations place in an international nuclear arms-reduction and nonproliferation regime.

    Second, the use of tons of plutonium from dismantled nuclear warheads as fuel in civilian nuclear power reactors will result in a significant increase in cancer risk to residents in and near the plants. A recent NCI report  [36] identified a number of technical flaws and misleading statements in earlier analyses by DOE that had found only a slight increase or even a decrease in cancer risk in the event of a severe accident at a power reactor using warhead plutonium in its fuel.

    We found that within a 1,000-mile radius of a plant, the number of "early" cancer fatalities among the public (those that will occur due to radiation exposures within one week after a severe accident) will be 81% to 96% greater on average for a plant with a full core of weapons-grade MOX fuel, and 27% to 32% greater for a plant with a one-third core of this type of MOX fuel, than for a plant with an LEU core. We found that in such an area with a surrounding population density similar to that near Duke Power’s Catawba and McGuire plants, the actual number of additional fatalities would be 1,430 to 6,165 if the plant had a full core of warhead-plutonium MOX fuel, and 477 to 2,055 if the plant had a one-third core of this fuel.

U.S. Non-Proliferation Policy

    The MOX approach to plutonium disposition is simply the latest example of the Clinton Administration's infinitely flexible non-proliferation policy on plutonium. When the policy was first unveiled in 1993, plutonium advocates criticized the restrictions on plutonium-use as Carter policy reborn. But in practice the Executive Branch has followed a "don’t ask, don’t tell" approach to plutonium use that is virtually indistinguishable from the Reagan and Bush years. That is, the policy on plutonium is repeated, almost like a mantra, when State Department officials are asked about it, but, in fact, the Clinton Administration does not actively "seek to eliminate where possible the accumulation of stockpiles of highly enriched uranium or plutonium ," or "explore means to limit the stockpiling of plutonium from civil nuclear programs,"  [37] as it pledged in the 1993 policy.

    The non-proliferation policy on plutonium also stated that "the United States does not encourage the civil use of plutonium and, accordingly, does not itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes. The United States, however, will maintain its existing commitments regarding the use of plutonium in civil nuclear programs in Western Europe and Japan."  [38]

    In purusing the policy over the past five years, the Administration has managed to expand on the concept of "existing commitments" to the detriment of the pursuit of limiting or eliminating reprocessing and the civil use of plutonium.  Time and again, the State Department has deferred to Western European and Japanese interests on civil plutonium matters.  Whether the issue has been the European demand for sweeping programmatic approvals of reprocessing and MOX use in the new U.S.-EURATOM nuclear-cooperation agreement, or Japan's demand for approval of European fabricatino of MOX fuel for Japanese reactors before the use of such fuel was approved in Japan, or Japan's demand for an easing of U.S. security requirements on MOX fuel shipments from Europe---non-proliferation objectives invariably have taken a back seat to avoidance of political frictions with allies.

    The Department of Energy aptly described the devolution of the plutonium-use policy in a December 1998 nonproliferation assessment:

Under this policy, the United States will continue its commitments not to interfere with civilian nuclear programs that involve the reprocessing and recycling of plutonium in Western Europe and Japan. In regions of proliferation concern, however, the United States actively opposes plutonium reprocessing and recycling.   [39] [emphasis added]

Thus, over the last five years, the policy has degenerated from an assurance that existing commitments (such as the 1988 advance programmatic consent for Japanese reprocessing) would continue to be honored, to the de facto creation of a new, sweeping commitment to noninterference---in other words, a laissez-faire approach to plutonium fuel cycles. 

    A basic flaw in the U.S. policy on plutonium is that while it purports to take "a comprehensive approach to the growing accumulation of stockpiles of fissile material from dismantled nuclear weapons and within civil nuclear programs," it, in fact, takes a highly discriminatory approach.  It indulges the the plutonium (and highly enriched uranium) fuel programs of Europe and Japan, and it advocates a fissile-material cut-off treaty that is applicable only to plutonium and bomb-grade uranium produced for weapons and turns a blind eye to civilian, weapons-usable nuclear materials worldwide.

    The answer to the question---"Is the United States opposed to civil reprocessing and plutonium use?"--- apparently depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is.

The Reprocessing Fallacy Revisited

    European and Japanese plutonium enthusiasts, freed from even a hint of disapproval from the United States, have had to contend only with their own foibles, not to mention the immutability of the reprocessing fallacy itself. The demise of the breeder has forced the plutonium industry to come up with other justifications for reprocessing. We conclude this paper by briefly examining and rebutting two of the principal ones: energy security and waste-management.

1. Reprocessing is Not Needed for Energy Security

    Advocates of plutonium recycling claim that world uranium reserves will prove insufficient, perhaps facing total depletion within a few decades.  [40]  Such predictions are based on the narrowest available estimates of total uranium reserves, that is, "Reasonably Assured Resources" (RAR) recoverable at a cost below $80 per kilogram of U3O8.  [41] However, RAR includes only well-known, completely explored deposits. If Estimated Additional Resources, Category I (EAR-I)---known resources in deposits that have not been completely explored---are also included, estimates of world reserves increase by more than half.  [42] Further, according to these OECD/IAEA estimates, "There remains very good potential for the discovery of additional uranium resources of conventional type, as reflected by estimates of EAR-II and Speculative Resources."  [43]

    Even if Speculative Resources are excluded, uranium reserves would suffice to fulfill projected world demand until the year 2062 from resources recoverable up to $80/kg U3O8, or until the year 2075 from resources recoverable up to $130/kg U3O8.   [44] Ample uranium exists to fulfill world demand far into the future. Additionally, long before these conventional uranium resources are depleted, rising prices would make uranium production from unconventional sources, such as seawater, economically competitive, providing nearly boundless uranium supplies without the need to resort to breeding plutonium.  [45]

2. Reprocessing is Not Needed for Waste Management

    Reprocessing proponents also claim that reprocessing and recycle represent a superior waste-management alternative to the direct disposal of spent fuel in a geologic repository. They cite the reduced volume of high-level waste when uranium and plutonium are recovered and fission products are mixed in a glass matrix to create vitrified high level waste (VHLW). They also claim that the VHLW contains less toxic and radioactive content than the equivalent amount of spent fuel.

    First, to state the obvious: If plutonium and recovered uranium from reprocessing are not recycled as MOX fuel, no volume-reduction or toxicity-reduction benefits ensue, because the plutonium and uranium must still be disposed of. In fact, uranium recovered from reprocessing is not being used on a commercial basis, because it is far more expensive than unirradiated uranium oxide, and also contains isotopes such as U-236 that complicate its reuse and pose environmental safety and health risks.

    Nor at this time is there widespread recycle of plutonium, because of the high costs and risks, discussed earlier, that make MOX fuel so unattractive to utilities and so threatening to the survival of the nuclear power industry.

    Even if the uranium and plutonium were recycled, the irradiated MOX fuel must still be disposed of in a repository. Plutonium advocates often imply, when addressing non-technical audiences, that plutonium can be recycled in a closed fuel cycle until it is entirely used up. As this audience well knows, such complete burning of plutonium in MOX is impossible. After only two or three recycles, the isotopics of plutonium are such that it cannot continue to be re-irradiated in fresh MOX fuel, and must be disposed of.  [46] Moreover, even the most fervent MOX supporters (France and Russia) do not currently plan to reprocess LWR MOX fuel even once for recovery and re-use of plutonium.

    Once MOX fuel enters into the equation, any purported waste-management benefits of reprocessing are forfeited. In fact, in regard to volume and toxicity, irradiated MOX is considerably worse than irradiated LEU for three reasons. First, reprocessing itself creates substantial intermediate- and low-level waste streams. When this waste is taken into account, the volume of reprocessing waste products requiring deep geological disposal is greater than the volume of waste from the equivalent amount of once-through LEU fuel by at least a factor of ten.  [47] Second, the key variable determining the volume requirements for a geologic repository is the total heat loading, not the physical volume of the spent fuel.  [48] In this regard, MOX spent fuel creates much greater heat loading than the comparable amount of LEU spent fuel, at least during the first hundred years or so when heat loading is most significant.  [49] Third, irradiated MOX fuel has considerably more radiotoxic content than its LEU fuel equivalent.  [50]

    It is worth noting (but it is not surprising) that the only assessments claiming waste-management advantages for reprocessing and recycle are those prepared by the plutonium industry itself. Independent studies invariably conclude either that there would be no significant waste-management difference between the two cycles,  [51] or that reprocessing-recycle would be worse than once-through.  [52] Thus, a review of the literature by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment concluded that

Despite such potential advantages, major studies that have considered reprocessing in the context of waste management have concluded that reprocessing of commercial spent fuel is not required for safe waste isolation .Moreover, reprocessing---which generates additional radioactive waste streams and involves operational risks of its own---does not appear to offer advantages that are sufficient to justify its use for waste management reasons alone. Thus, while large-scale reprocessing of commercial spent fuel would have significant implications for waste management, those implications would not be a major factor in the decision on whether to undertake such reprocessing.  [53]


    When the economic, health and safety, and proliferation liabilities of reprocessing and recycle are tallied up, it is not surprising that the plutonium industry is dying. Yet, proponents of the closed fuel cycle are attempting a comeback in the United States, masquerading as arms controllers and pushing the warhead-plutonium MOX fuel disposition program.

    Senator Domenici and other advocates of commercial reprocessing and MOX fuel seem quite willing to trade plutonium for greenhouse gases in a nuclear solution to global warming.  But Princeton University scientists have calculated that replacing just one-tenth of global fossil-fuel use would require a ten-fold increase in nuclear capacity (equivalent to 3,000 large reactors worldwide) and would place about five million kilograms of separated plutonium into global commerce each year.  That's equivalent to at least 700,000 nuclear bombs.  [54]  Who will guarantee that the eight kilograms or less of plutonium needed to destroy a city will not go astray from time to time?

    Plutonium evangelists should ponder hard before being identified with this "solution."  Both their place in history and the survival of civilization are at stake.  It is to be hoped that nuclear power decision-makers, electric utilities, and electricity consumers both here and abroad will come to recognize these liabilities before additional millions of dollars are squandered and millions of lives are put at risk by these dangerous non-solutions to energy-security and nuclear-waste management problem.

End Notes

1. Paul Leventhal is president and Steven Dolley is research director of the Nuclear Control Institute, Washington, DC.  (

2. For a more detailed discussion, see Frank von Hippel and Suzanne Jones, "The Slow Death of the Fast Breeder," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 1997, pp. 46-51.

3. R. Adam Moody, "Report: The Indian-Russian Light Water Reactor Deal," Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1997, pp. 114-115.

4. Victor Gilinsky and Paul Leventhal, "India Cheated," Washington Post, June 15, 1998.

5. Paul Leventhal and Steven Dolley, "A Japanese Strategic Uranium Reserve: A Safe and Economic Alternative to Plutonium," Science & Global Security, 1994, Volume 5, pp. 1-31.

6. The Royal Society, Management of Separated Plutonium, London, January 1998, p. 1.  "If no action is taken on these existing stocks, and reprocessing of spent fuel continues as plannned, then by 2010 the U.K. stock of separated plutonium is predicted to increase to over 100 tons."   Ibid.

7. Thomas Cochran, "Safeguarding Nuclear weapon-Usable Materials in Russia," Presented at the International Forum on Illegal Nuclear Traffic: Risks, Countermeasures and Safeguards, Como, Italy, 12-13 June 1997, p. 1.

8. Mark Hibbs and Ann MacLachlan, "Minatom Ends Plans to Reprocess at Krasnoyarsk, Will Upgrade Mayak," NuclearFuel, November 2, 1998, p. 5.

9.  "Russia Seeks to Reprocess the World's Spent Fuel," Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, February 1, 1999, p. 3.

10. "The only way the Russians will burn the excess Pu as MOX in its existing VVERs is if the West funds the entire deal---including building a MOX fabrication plant in Russia---and 'compensates' the Russians for using it now."  Dave Airozo, "Finding Europeans Disinterested, Domenici Shelves 'Global Burn,'" NuclearFuel, July 27, 1998, p. 3.

11. Dave Airozo, "Budget Deal Said to Include Seed Money for Russian MOX Effort," NuclearFuel, October 19, 1998, p. 18.

12. Joint United States/Russian Plutonium Disposition Study, September 1996, p. WR-40.

13. Panel of High-Level Advisors on Nuclear Strategy in Central and Eastern Europe and in the New Independent States, A Strategic View for the Future of the European Union's Phare and Tacis Programmes, October 1998, Section 2.1.3.

14. Mark Hibbs, "Superphenix Dies Officially as Decommissioning License Issued," Nucleonics Week, January 7, 1999, p. 6.

15. Ann MacLachlan, "EDF Receives Licenses to Burn MOX in Four More Chinon 900-MW PWRs," NuclearFuel, August 10, 1998, pp. 5-6.  Twenty of France's 58 LWRs are licensed to use MOX.

16. Ann MacLachlan, "EDF to Erase Positive Pu Value in 1995 Accounts," Nucleonics Week, November 2, 1995, p. 14.

17. "No Problem with Changes Proposed at Reprocessing Plant," Atoms in Japan, September 1997, p. 13.

18. Citizens Nuclear Information Center & Green Action, "Current Situation on MOX Use in Japan," January 28, 1999.

19. Mark Hibbs, "Chancellor Says Germany Will End Reprocessing, Won't Pay Damages," Nucleonics Week, January 21, 1999, p. 1.

20. Cogema statement, quoted in Ann MacLachlan, "French in Turmoil Over German Intent to Cancel Reprocessing," Nucleonics Week, January 21, 1999, p. 11.

21. "Germany---Nuclear," Associated Press Wire Service, February 22, 1999.

22. Mark Hibbs, "Germany Faces Plutonium Hangover if Bonn Starts Shutting Reactors," NuclearFuel, February 8, 1999, p. 1.

23. Ann MacLachlan, "Belgium Cancels Reprocessing, Orders Review of Nuclear Future," Nucleonics Week, December 10, 1998, pp. 1-2.

24. Mark Hibbs, "New KEPCO Leadership Said to be Cooler to Plutonium Option," NuclearFuel, July 27, 1998, p. 4; Mark Hibbs, "Cogema, Minatom Said to Intercede to Get Taiwan US Prior Consent to Reprocess," NuclearFuel, March 23, 1998, pp. 6-7.

25. Mark Hibbs, "Daya Bay Spent Fuel to be Moved to Separation Plant Pool by 2000," NuclearFuel, November 2, 1998, p. 4.

26. Paul Leventhal, "THORP: Surplus Plutonium in Dispute," Financial Times, November 23, 1993.

27. U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Nonproliferation Impacts Assessment for the Management of the Savannah River Site Aluminum-Based Spent Nuclear Fuel, December 1998, p. 2-1.

28. Senator Pete V. Domenici, "The Domenici Challenge," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 1998, pp. 40, 44.

29. "U.S. Senate Energy Committee Passes Waste Bill, Names Nevada Site for Interim Storage Facility," SpentFuel, March 18, 1996, pp. 1-2; "New Senate Waste Bill Alters S.1271 to Avoid Veto But Includes Controversial Funding Provisions," SpentFuel, July 15, 1996, pp. 1-2.

30. Edwin Lyman, "DOE Reprocessing Policy and the Irreversibility of Plutonium Disposition," Nuclear Control Institute, April 1998 (updated September 1998).

31. Ibid, p. 2.

32. George Lobsenz, "Westinghouse: Reprocessing 'Almost Certainly' Cheaper than Yucca Mountain," Energy Daily, January 8, 1996, p. 1.

33. DOE (1998), op cit., p. 2-6.

34. Under the dual-track approach, the U.S. Government will be engaging in MOX activities for the first time on a commercial scale, legitimizing the use of MOX in civil nuclear programs.  ACDA Director John Holum expressed his concerns in a 1996 memorandum, which he was promptly pressured by the Administration to recant:

"If the hybrid option is chosen, these countries [Russia, South Korea, and others] would hear only one message for the next 25 years: that plutonium use for generating commercial nuclear power is now being blessed by the United States.  No matter how much effort we take in reducing these risks...the overriding message that we will convey is that civil plutonium use is acceptable.  Such a sea change in U.S. policy will confuse and complicate U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy.  It will send the wrong signal to Western Europe, Japan, and other non-nuclear-weapon states."

John Holum, director, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, "The Pending 'Record of Decision' on Preferred Alternatives for the Disposition of Excess U.S. Plutonium," memorandum for the Secretary of Energy, November 1, 1996.

35.  For a detailed response to these claims, see Paul Leventhal and Edwin Lyman, "Bury the Stuff," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 1997, pp. 45-48.

36. Edwin S. Lyman, "Public Health Consequences of Substituting Mixed-Oxide for Uranium Fuel in Light-Water Reactors," Nuclear Control Institute, January 1999.

37. White House, "Fact Sheet: Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy," September 27, 1993.

38. Ibid.

39. DOE (1998), op cit., p. 2-4.

40. Hiroshi Kurihara (PNC), "A Japanese Perspective on Storage of Nuclear Materials from Dismantled Nuclear Warheads," paper presented at The International Workshop on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Issues for International Actions, Tokyo, Japan, 15-16 March 1993.  See addendum and figure 1.

41. OECD-NEA/IAEA, Uranium 1991: Resources, Production and Demand, 1992, table 1, "Reasonably Assured Resources," p. 21.  This frequently cited study is also known as the "red book."

42. Ibid, table 2, "Estimated Additional Resources---Category I," p. 24.

43.  Ibid, p. 10.

44.  Based on OECD-IAEA uranium reserve estimates (ibid), and projections of future world uranium requirements from the Uranium Institute, Uranium in the New World Market: A Statistical Update of Supply and Demand 1991-2010, October 1992, Table II, "Uranium Requirements," p. 39.

45. Toru Hiraoka, Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, " Nuclear Electricity Generation Using Seawater Uranium," Atoms in Japan, December 1994, pp. 14-16.  Hiraoka estimated that recovering uranium from seawater would cost about 34,000 yen per kilogram, or about five times more than the current cost of mined uranium in Japan.  Ibid, p. 15.  His conclusion was that "the world can expect to be freed from the constraint of uranium resources for at least a few hundred years if up to 4 percent of uranium from seawater can be recovered."  Ibid, p. 16.

46. Report by the Working Party on Physics of Plutonium Recycling, NEA Nuclear Science Committee, Physics of Plutonium Recycling, Volume I: Issues and Perspectives, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, 1995, pp. 115-116.

47. Frank von Hippel, "Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing and Radioactive Waste Disposal," January 1983 ["von Hippel 1983'], p. 3; Frans Berkhout, "The Rationale and Economics of Reprocessing," 1995, in Selected Papers from Global '95 Concerning Plutonium, Ed. W.G. Sutcliffe, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, UCRL-ID-124105, June 14, 1996, p. 42.

48. U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, Managing the Nation's Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste, March 1985 ["OTA 1985"], p. 72; U.K. Department of Energy study, quoted in House of Commons, First Report from the Environment Committee, Session 1985-86, Radioactive Waste, Volume I, 28 January 1986 ["U.K. Environment Committee 1986"], p. lxxxiv.

49. G. Kessler et al., "Direct Disposal Versus Multiple Recycling of Plutonium," in Proceedings of the International Conference and Technology Exposition on Future Nuclear Systems: Emerging Fuel Cycles and Waste Disposal Options: Global '93, Seattle, Washington, September 12-17, 1993, p. 277 & 280.

50. OTA 1985, op cit., p. 72; J. Malherbe et al., "Influence of  High Burn Up on the High Level Waste Reprocessing Waste Management," in Proceedings of the International Topical Meeting, High Level Radioactive Waste Management, Volume 2, Las Vegas, Nevada, April 8-12, 1990, p. 1395.

51. This conclusion was reached in the waste-management assessments of the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) and the American Physical Society (both cited in von Hippel, op cit., 1983, p. 6); and the U.K. Environment Committee (op cit., 1986, p. lxxxv), among others.

52. von Hippel 1983, op cit.

53. OTA, op cit., 1985, p. 68.

54. Robert H. Williams and Harold A. Feiveson, "How to Expand Nuclear Power Without Proliferation," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1990, p. 40.

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