Plutonium Reprocessing Twenty Years Experience (1977-1997)

By Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.

keeny As one of the early acts of his Administration, President Carter in April 1977 issued a statement on nuclear policy that began with a commitment to defer indefinitely the commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium. The history of the past twenty years has dramatically demonstrated the wisdom of this policy and underscored the need to continue on this course for the foreseeable future.

President Carter's decision marked a distinct break from the conventional wisdom inherited from the early days of the nuclear age that reprocessing of plutonium leading to plutonium fuel cycle was the indispensable key to achieving a plentiful supply of cheap nuclear power to meet the accelerating global demand for electricity. Despite the demonstrated ability of nuclear reactors to produce energy, the supply of natural uranium to provide fuel for reactors was originally perceived to be in very short supply which underscored the fact that with less than one percent (.007) of this natural uranium was in the form of the isotope U-235 that sustained the energy-producing chain reaction in the reactor. A solution to this highly inefficient utilization of an apparently very limited resource was provided by the convenient fact that the plutonium produced in a reactor by the capture of neutrons by the other natural uranium isotope U-238, which makes up more than 99 percent of natural uranium, is also a suitable fuel for reactors. Chemical separation of this plutonium (by them same process used to obtain plutonium for weapons) makes available more fissile material for use in reactors. Moreover, the physics is such that these reactors can be designed to produce more fissile material than they consume. These "breeders" can therefore in principle eventually consume all of the U-238 in natural uranium and thereby increase production of energy from a given amount of uranium by a factor of as much as 100. Caught up in the enthusiasm of the new nuclear age, it was widely assumed that the solution of this problem would simply be a relatively straightforward engineering exercise that would lead to early introduction of plutonium reprocessing and breeder reactors that would solve the world's energy problems.

Unfortunately, plutonium reprocessing and the resulting "plutonium economy" presented with a serious new security problem by substantially increasing the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons. The technology of reprocessing plutonium for civil reactors is the same as that for producing plutonium for weapons. Moreover, with the passage of time it became increasingly clear that even plutonium from civil reactors, operating in a normal fashion, could be used to make nuclear weapons. The not very reassuring response to these serious concerns was that the plutonium from civil reactors would not be as good for weapons purposes as specially produced plutonium and that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards would give adequate warning of any diversion of materials. Looking down the road, when breeders enter the picture, each reactor might have an inventory of several tons of plutonium, the equivalent of 1000 nuclear weapons. Even with the most effective safeguards, a world in which tons of weapons useable plutonium are being separated and shipped from place to place every year would create far greater opportunities for nuclear theft and diversion.

Despite the promises of cheap and unlimited electric power, the U.S. nucleear industry by mid- 1975 was in serious trouble, plagued by rapidly escalating costs multiplying regulatory problems, and increasing political opposition largely on environmental issues. At the same time, the "energy crisis" sparked by the oil embargo of 1973 and the subsequent quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC stimulated in concern over energy sufficiency and a temporary surge in spot prices for uranium from $8 to $40 a pound.

In this environment, the Nuclear Energy Policy Study Group, which was initiated by McGeorge Bundy, President of the Ford Foundation (and former National Security Advisor to President Kennedy), undertook a broad examination of the role of nuclear power in the overall energy picture. The Study Group (of which I was chairman) was made up of experts in related fields who had no conflicts of interest and had not taken sides in the increasingly bitter debate over the role of nuclear power. 'The group's findings were set forth in a major report, "Nuclear Power Issues and Choices," which was released at the beginning of 1977.

In general, the Study Group concluded that despite its many serious problems, nuclear energy would and should be a major source of electric power in the future. The study, however, was extremely critical of much of the analysis on which the future planning of the nuclear industry and governmental policy had been based. For example, projections of power demand were vastly inflated and capital costs, which are the largest factor in the economics of nuclear power, were greatly underestimated.

The study was particularly critical of the estimates of the future availability and cost of uranium, which is central to any decisions on the economic viability of plutonium reprocessing and the need for and timing of breeder reactors. Until the cost of uranium ore rises significantly, it is cheaper to produce low enriched uranium from new ore than to separate plutonium from previously irradiated fuel elements. The study concluded that, if uranium followed the example of other minerals, the higher costs accompanying increased demand would generate much larger supplies than previously forecast as it was discovered that lower grade sources could be profitably exploited.

On the basis of more realistic estimates of uranium reserves and the capital costs involved in plutonium reprocessing, the study concluded that "there is no compelling reason at this time to introduce plutonium or to anticipate its introduction in this century." Since the dangers associated with the plutonium economy, in particular proliferation of nuclear weapons, were seen as far outweighing any possible economic benefit under the most optimistic assumptions for reprocessing the study recommended that a clear cut decision be made "to defer indefinitely commercial reprocessing of plutonium." Such a positive decision to defer was seen as having a major influence on the decisions of other countries to pursue reprocessing while a decision to go ahead would accelerate international interest in the dangerous plutonium fuel cycle. Consequently, the study, recommended that the government not take over or subsidize the Barnwell plutonium reprocessing facility which undertaken as a commercial venture and was in serious economic and technical troubles.

Despite the inherent proliferation dangers associated with a future plutonium economy, the study concluded that a long term development program should continue as insurance against the possibility of very high energy costs in the future. Since the anticipated availability of low cost uranium indicated that this would not be the case for a long time, the study concluded the on-going very expensive program to demonstrate early commercialization of breeder technology was premature and that the Clinch River Project, a prototype demonstration reactor, could be canceled without harming the long term prospects for breeders which might in fact never be needed if alternative energy sources became available later in the next century.

At the time, reactions to the study were decidedly mixed. The nuclear industry attacked it as an unwarranted assault on the future of nuclear power. At the other extreme, environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists attacked it as being overly supportive of nuclear energy as an important source of electric power. What really mattered, however, was that President Carter, who was briefed in the Cabinet room by the study group on its report soon after he took office, was impressed by the study. Shortly after his briefing he gave the Japanese Prime Minister a copy of the report with the comment that, if he were to write a book on the subject, this would be it. Actually, while the extensive independent analysis in the study brought the details of the issue to public attention, many of the study's conclusions were already gaining acceptance, including the recommendation that plutonium reprocessing be indefinitely postponed. For example, President Ford of the eve of the 1976 election had stated that "reprocessing should not proceed unless there is sound reason to conclude that the world community can overcome effectively the associated risks of proliferation."

After Carter issued his statement in April 1977 deferring indefinitely commercial reprocessing of plutonium, he initiated the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) Conference which sought to persuade the international nuclear community that economics did not support reprocessing and the plutonium fuel cycle. The United States moved too quickly on the issue and was largely isolated at the conference by the other major players in nuclear power, including: France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, all of which vehemently rejected the abandonment of the plutonium fuel cycle option. All of these countries continued to energetically pursue program involving plutonium reprocessing and development of breeder reactors. Although, President Reagan initially criticized Carter's nuclear power policies, for simple economic reasons U.S. industry then as now was not interested in plutonium reprocessing and breeders and in 1983 both the Barnwell reprocessing and the Clinch River breeder project were finally terminated.

Now that 20 years have elapsed since the completion of our study and President Carter's decision on plutonium reprocessing, it is useful to take stock of what has happened in the interim to determine the validity of the analysis and the wisdom of his decision. I believe the study has stood the test of time extremely well and can only be faulted for having been too cautious in its critique of the then conventional wisdom of the nuclear power community.

While correctly anticipating that nuclear power with its escalating capital costs and regulatory problems would have difficulty competing with electric power from conventional "fossil" fuels, the study did not anticipate that there would in fact be no new orders for nuclear power plutonium in the United States during the next twenty years. This amazing statistic relates to orders for the well proven light water reactors using low enriched uranium. Reactors using more expensive recycled plutonium or unproven advanced breeder reactors would certainly have found no takers in this market.

With regard to uranium, the study was right on the mark in flagging the common misconception about uranium supplies but again was overly cautious. In two decades there have been no shortages of uranium and no increase in cost. In fact, there is such an over supply of uranium that the cost today (about $12 per pound) is only fifty per cent greater than it was 25 years ago before the energy of the early seventies. Thus, considering the 200 per cent inflation rate that has accrued during this period, the real cost of uranium today is less than half the price at that time and less than one tenth the cost at the time of the study. It is dffficult to identify any other basic material whose real cost has declined so precipitously. At present many uranium mines have closed because they cannot compete at current prices and there is a worldwide excess capacity of enrichment facilities to produce low enriched uranium for standard light water reactors. In short, there is no economic reason to pay subsidies that would be required to operate a plutonium fuel cycle.

With the end of the Cold War and the diminished direct military nuclear threat from Russia, the relative importance of nuclear proliferation markedly increased. The wide-spread creation of the technical infrastructure to produce plutonium as well as the global traffic in plutonium in connection with the plutonium fuel cycle would greatly increase the potential for nuclear proliferation. The problems now associated with the potential leakage of plutonium from the Russian program could become global in scope. Concern about a small plutonium processing plant in North Korea stimulated a major confrontation that some highly regarded strategists suggested justified preempting military action and led to a major high-risk U.S. diplomatic initiative to eliminate a potential nuclear weapons program. Currently, a major objective of U.S. foreign policy is to discourage Russian and Chinese assistance to the nuclear program and in particular to make sure that Iran does not obtain a plutonium reprocessing plant as part of any deal. The pursuit of an unnecessary and wasteful plutonium economy is the last thing we need in a world struggling to prevent further nuclear proliferation.

Despite these economic and political realities, the tight-knit nuclear power industries in a number of countries, including France, Japan and Russia have continued to pursue the plutonium reprocessing and the plutonium fuel cycle. These countries have invested vast sums in breeder programs that have no chance of succeeding in the foreseeable future. This obsession with uneconomic solutions to the energy problems reflects institutional inertia, state subsidized isolation from the market, and a technological fixation with achieving the "holy grail'of nuclear technology through the breeder reactor, regardless of cost.

In France the Superphoemx. a demonstration commercial breeder reactor, has been a dramauc failure and, after a prolonged shut down for technical problems, has been reoriented to a research role. In fuel-poor Japan, which is driven by a deep rooted desire for energy self sufficiency going back to its isolationist past and experience during the World War II blockade, a major program based on plutonium economy and breeders, has serious technical and economic problems-- and in the wake of recent accidents serious political problems as well. In fuel rich Russia, whose nuclear program historically never had any economic basis, grandiose paper plans for a plutonium fuel cycle program are rapidly fading in the growing recognition that its economy cannot even safely support its existing reactors, on which actual work has been halted for many years.

An element of confusion has recently arisen in public perception of U.S. policy toward the plutonium fuel cycle with the recent announcement that the U.S. would use excess plutonium from eliminated nuclear weapons as MOX fuel in commercial nuclear reactors. This was incorrectly hailed and denounced by advocates and opponents of the nuclear fuel cycle. Actually, this activity has nothing to do with plutonium reprocessing but is simply a medod of disposing of existing separated plutonium by using it as a reactor fuel which once irradiated will be no more accessible to recapture than plutonium from normal spent fuel from commercial reactors. Significantly, even this "free" plutonium is not competitive with low emiched uranium fuel and requires significant subsidy.

With high confidence based on two decades of persuasive experience, the United States should continue President Carter's sound economic and security policy of deferring indefinitely the reprocesmg of plutonium in civil reactors. Moreover, a renewed effort should be undertaken to build an international consensus against an economically unjustified plutonium economy which entails serious international security risks. While such an effort will continue to meet resistance, one would hope that opposition will be considerably diminshed from 1977 given the unanticipated difficulties that the opponents of the policy have experienced over the last two decades.

home | did you know? | maps & charts | interviews | readings | glossary | reactions | faqs | join in
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
PBS Online