# Reprocessing of Spent Nuclear Fuel

1. Oct 5, 2007

### daveb

I hear a lot of talk about the law from teh 70's passed by Congress that forbade the reprocessing of commercial SNF. In my Radioactive Waste Management class today, the professor (who is a CHP/PE who specializes in waste management) said it was actually Carter, not Congress (which means, I assume, it was an Excutive Order), but Reagan lifted the ban later on. There are, of course treaties such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty and perhaps others that aim to curtial the plutonium accessible for possible terrorism, etc.) He was pretty sure that reprocessing was allowable even by treaty as long as the site allowed independent inspection by the IAEA.

My question is whether this is still a law that is active, if so, what is the name of this law/act, and the specifics of the law (links are helpful here). I ask because for another class, we are doing research into the molten salt reactors. For my group, we are considering the online reprocessing possibility, including (but not limited to) the legal aspects of online reprocessing, so i need to look up this info. I can't seem to find any evidence for such a law on web searches, but since it has been mentioned numerous times, I need to find out the facts.

2. Oct 5, 2007

### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
There are references to Jimmy Carter's (April) 1977 executive order in which he apparently suspended reprocessing of SNF, but after some research, I cannot find such an EO. There was only one in April of 1977 - EO 11982 - Committee on Selection of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Perhaps Carter announced in April the intent to suspend reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel (SNF).

I believe the suspension of reprocessing was in the Department of Energy Organization Act, PL 95-91, signed 8/4/77, which may be confused with Reorganization Act of 1977, PL 95-17, signed 4/6/77, the latter being reorganization of the Executive Office of the President.

http://www.stanfordreview.org/Archive/Volume_XXXIII/Issue_4/Opinions/Opinions3.shtml [Broken]

Nuclear Industry Supports Reprocessing Research But Foresees Long Road to Implementation

The Separations Technology and Transmutation Systems (STATS) Report: Implications for Nuclear Power Growth and Energy Sufficiency
http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA396.html

Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
3. Oct 6, 2007

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
Carter's policy was a failure in several respects. Carter wanted the US to "show the example" by not using spend fuel reprocessing, with the hope that other nations would follow that example and not reprocess. But that clearly didn't work out as the French and the British have set up a reprocessing plant (Sellafield and La Hague). As such, the idea that if the US doesn't devellop fuel reprocessing, the technology will not be industrially available, failed.

But the second error in Carter's policy was that reprocessing of spend fuel in LWR is by itself not much of a proliferation issue, because the plutonium one gets out of it isn't really weapon-grade quality if the burnup is high. Now, there are discussions of whether it is possible or not to build a badly working weapen anyhow with this plutonium, but as most of this is classified information I guess it is hard to know. It is a bit funny that a nation who had a huge stockpile of weapongrade plutonium for military purposes was being affraid that non-military grade plutonium might somehow be stolen...

In the mean time, the PUREX process is not really a big secret, and everyone who really wants to build a reprocessing plant can do so with enough \$. The extracted plutonium from PWR spend fuel is probably not good enough to make a good working nuclear weapon, but at least if you extract it, you can control it ; if you leave the spend fuel "as is", anybody can come and mine the plutonium.

So I find it a huge pity that advances in the fuel cycle are being blocked with silly considerations of non-proliferation, based upon the erroneous idea that somehow it is easier for someone to make a nuclear weapon by stealing bad quality plutonium from a country that has reprocessing capabilities and try to make a working weapon out of that (which is way more difficult), than to make weapon-grade plutonium oneself using a good old graphite/natural uranium reactor and some tri-butyl phosphate.

Now maybe I have some misconceptions on the issue, in which case I would like to be enlightened.

4. Oct 6, 2007

### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
For high burnup fuel, that would be more or less true, but one could build a weapon with the Pu. The problem however would be the radiation which would injure the workers and damage components, but then some groups don't worry about such matters. It certainly would be much easier to detect.

There are ways to optimize the conversion of U to Pu (239) with low levels of Pu-241 and heavier nuclides, but that's something not to be shared.

Controls on SNM are fairly strict, so proliferation from the US is not the problem. As one indicated, Carter wanted to set an example for other countries to follow, but it was rather misguided, and certainly France, Britain, Russia and Japan have reprocessing capability. India and Pakistan (A. Q. Khan) also have that capability.

Last edited: Oct 6, 2007
5. Oct 6, 2007

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
I think that this is indeed a silly argument: if you set out to build a nuclear weapon, surely you're able to devise some radioprotection! The point is that "polluted" Pu (that means, anything else than Pu-239) needs first of all a much higher mass to build a weapon from, and "pre-ignites" too easily. So the building of the weapon itself is much harder with "bad" Pu than with weapon grade Pu ; I don't even know (and will probably never find out) whether it is feasible or not. As such, for some organization which has the technical ability to do all that, it would be no problem for them to:
1) have radioprotection (or suicide fools who don't mind)
2) make weapon grade plutonium themselves using "standard" techniques, not having to rely on stolen spend fuel.

Sure: a good old graphite reactor with continuous fueling does that very well...
That's how the first weapons were made anyhow.

6. Oct 6, 2007

### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
Nuclear weapons are not pure Pu239, but certainly one would wish to minimize the other isotopes.

A weapons designer wishes to minimize mass, which is not an important consideration for some people.

I was thinking in the context of an LWR. A graphite reactor would be quite obvious.

7. Oct 6, 2007

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
I don't know much about all this, but it was my understanding that polluted plutonium is difficult, not really because of the extra mass, but rather because the implosion requirements are much more difficult to achieve: you have more absorption and less fission cross section, and you have more spontaneous fission. All this means that the power increase is slower during the implosion, and hence that you pre-ignite much easier.
If you master all this technology, then surely you can master a graphite/natural uranium reactor.

Point is, I find it a silly argument in several Western countries to refrain from having fuel reprocessing in the nuclear power sector simply because of proliferation issues. People (terrorists, a gouvernment, country...) who have decided to make a nuclear weapon will not make use of the fuel cycle in another country to do so. I don't think the North-Coreans tried to steal plutonium from La Hague to make their bombs. India and Pakistan didn't base their (initially forbidden) nuclear weapon program on stolen plutonium.
The main pathways to a nuclear weapon are not the fuel cycle of another country.

8. Oct 6, 2007

### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
If one wants a clandestine operation one would probably want an LWR rather than graphite reactor, which have their own issues.

True! None of the nuclear weapons programs have utilitize foreign Pu.

Carter was simply trying to set an example, which was absurd and ill-conceived. Those who want a nuclear weapons program will ignore any such example.

9. Oct 6, 2007

### Morbius

daveb,

WRONG!!!! Reagan couldn't unilaterally lift the ban because it was NOT an Executive Order
of Carter. [ For Pete's sake, why did your Professor completely fabricate the claim that Reagan
lifted the ban? ]

It was a LAW passed by Congress, it was called the "Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978".

It was signed by Carter, but is a Act of Congress, i.e. a LAW and can NOT be repealed by order
of the President; and remains in effect.

http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=30475

Dr. Gregory Greenman
Physicist

Last edited: Oct 7, 2007
10. Oct 6, 2007

### Morbius

Astronuc,

The issue with high burnup fuel is that with higher burnups you get more of the even numbered
Plutonium isotopes; Pu-240 and Pu-242. These isotopes spontaneously fission.

The spontaneous fission means that you will have a higher neutron background, and that means
the weapon assembly has to be faster; otherwise the weapon will fizzle.

Los Alamos had originally intended to use gun-assembly for the Plutonium bomb, just as they
were planning with the Little Boy uranium bomb. However, when they got macroscopic quantities
of Plutonium; they discovered that it was infeasible to assemble a Plutonium device with a gun
method.

The problem of using Plutonium was solved by using an implosion method originally suggested by
Seth Neddermeyer, and developed and improved by George Kistiakowsky. The implosion method is
more complicated than gun assembly. Even then, a high neutron background also complicates assembly
method; even when implosion is used.

http://www.fas.org/nuke/intro/nuke/design.htm [Broken]

"Because of the short time interval between spontaneous neutron emissions (and, therefore, the large number
of background neutrons) found in plutonium because of the decay by spontaneous fission of the isotope Pu-240,
Manhattan Project scientists devised the implosion method of assembly in which high explosives are arranged
to form an imploding shock wave which compresses the fissile material to supercriticality."

These high A Plutonium isotopes are alpha-emitters; so it is TRIVIAL to shield the direct decay products.
However, with spontaneous fission; you get gammas from the fission reaction, and the fission products.

Dr. Gregory Greenman
Physicist

Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
11. Oct 8, 2007

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
From the Carter link by Morbius:

That was the silly part of it...

12. Oct 8, 2007

### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
Carter was naive. He should have discussed it with the British and French before making a unilateral decision. Hopefully someone would have asked for his rationale.

13. Oct 8, 2007

### Morbius

Astronuc,

Actually Carter DID discuss this issue with the British and the French. Early in his Administration,
Carter called for an international study of the nuclear fuel cycle by the USA, Great Britain, France,
and the Soviet Union. It was called INFCE - the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation program;
and ran from 1977 to 1980.

From the outset of INFCE it was clear that Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union were going to
to keep reprocessing nuclear fuel according to the USA's representative; former Professor of
Nuclear Engineering, Dr. Albert Carnesale [ who recently retired as Chancellor of UCLA ] as he explained
when he gave a seminar at MIT when I was a graduate student there.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 was Carter's response - an attempt to FORCE
Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union into giving up reprocessing. How the USA doing
something unilaterally forces the hand of other countries; I don't understand. But that was Carter's
"logic" [ if you can call it that ].

One of the "take-away" points I remember coming away from Dr. Carnesale's seminar was that
Carter had his mind made up; and it didn't matter what he [ Dr. Carnesale ] or any of the other
members of the INFCE partnership said; Carter wanted a world free of nuclear fuel reprocessing.

Yes - Carter was GROSSLY NAIVE, and saddled the USA was with the terrible policy of a
"once through" fuel cycle for our commercial fleet of nuclear power plants.

Dr. Gregory Greenman
Physicist

Last edited: Oct 8, 2007
14. Oct 8, 2007

### daveb

According to both Wikipedia (which is not very accurate at times and should be taken with a grain of salt), and this http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RS22542.pdf site, the NNPA had nothing to do with commercial reprocessing of fuel in the US, and it was a withdrawal of federal support for reprocessing that stopped it. Then later Reagan did lift the ban. I found a partial text of the NNPS here http://www.nti.org/db/china/engdocs/nnpa1978.htm and it mentions nothing about banning domestic reprocessing. Do you by chance have a link to the actual text of that law that mentions it? The link to Carter's statement you provided doesn't specifically state the ban.

15. Oct 8, 2007

### Morbius

daveb,

I have not found a link to the text of the NNPA. However, it DOES BAN all reprocessing in the
Unitied States.

The CRS paper you refer to above only deals with the foreign policy part of the NNPA; NOT the
domestic part.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 modified certain sections of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954;
and THAT's where you will find the explicit ban on fuel reprocessing.

In the USA, commercial reprocessing was about to go forward in the early '70s. However, a federal
Court decision blocked the licensing of commercial reprocessing because the newly [ 1970 ] enacted
Environmental Protection Act requires an environmental impact statement in order for the NRC to
issue a license to a commercial reprocessing operation.

So the Nuclear Regulatory Commission drafted the GESMO - the Generic Environmental Statement
on Mixed Oxide [ mixed oxide is the reprocessed fuel that is the product of reprocessing and which
is recycled back to the reactors. ].

With the GESMO in hand, the NRC was all set to license reprocessing facilities - then Congress
out-right BANNED reprocessing in 1978 with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Policy Act of 1978.

In the 1970s the Atomic Energy Commission, a forerunner of DOE, produced desk studies on plutonium fuel use,
the most prominent of which was the Generic Environmental Statement on Use of Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) in
Light Water Reactors (GESMO) issued in 1976. The GESMO project was terminated in 1979 following the national
policy decision not to use MOX plutonium fuels. A completed commercial scale reprocessing plant at Barnwell,
South Carolina, was mothballed at the same time.

The USA had a COMPLETED commercial reprocessing plants at Morris, Il and Barnwell, SC which had to be mothballed
because reprocessing was banned.

Reprocessing / recycling of nuclear fuel would solve so many problems - it reduces the lifetime of
nuclear waste, it provides more cost-effective fuel as opposed to freshly enriched uranium....
The nuclear industry would be reprocessing in a heartbeat if Reagan had lifted the ban.

Alas, Reagan DID NOT lift the ban - because the ban was codified in LAW.

Dr. Gregory Greenman
Physicist

Last edited: Oct 8, 2007
16. Oct 8, 2007

### daveb

Ok, now I'm confused. This site http://www.princeton.edu/~globsec/publications/pdf/Sciencev293n5539.pdf says what I had previously stated and quoted, but says the reason reprocessing didn't start up was economic, not political.

and
My boss (Ph.D. Nuclear Engineering) now says it's the Salt Treaty (he doesn't remember if it was I or II) that banned the reproceesing so that no new bombs would be made.

17. Oct 8, 2007

### Morbius

daveb,

First, NONE of the special nuclear material in the USA's nuclear weapons came from commercial
reactors. The USA had special production reactors at Hanford and Savannah River to make
weapons material. The last reactor at Savannah River was shut down in 1988.

The USA HAS made new bombs since ceasing the production of special nuclear material.

New nuclear weapons usually replace older nuclear weapons; and the old weapon can be dismantled
as a source of nuclear material. The more advanced new nuclear weapon usually needs less
special nuclear material than the old ones it replaces.

So banning commercial reprocessing as a way of preventing new nuclear weapons from being built
is totally ineffective. "Reactor grade" Plutonium from commercial reactors is NOT the type of
material weapons designers like to use. Additionally, the USA has all the weapons grade Plutonium
that it needs for new nuclear weapons.

Dr. Gregory Greenman
Physicist

Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
18. Oct 8, 2007

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
I have to say that I'm confused: I didn't know that there was still a reprocessing ban in the US as of this day. How come then that the US is part of the GEN-IV initiative which makes no sense without fuel reprocessing ?

As to the commercial benefit of reprocessing, it is probably true that as of today, there is probably not much to win with reprocessing and the once-through cycle is probably on short term the cheapest. The MOX re-use of plutonium in LWR can only save ~10% of the uranium input. The main advantage of reprocessing is the reduction of HLW volume and the reduction of its long-term radiotoxicity (by taking out the plutonium - but then you still have to do something with it) ; in other words, reprocessing as of today is mainly an ecological advantage (no matter what anti-nuclear activists may claim).
But the real reason for reprocessing is of course when breeders will (finally) be deployed on large scale. But for that to be economical, uranium needs to be more expensive than it is today, but is will probably become so in a few decades. Then one can "live" on the old stockpile of spend fuel for a few more millennia. But for that to be effective, fuel reprocessing is of course essential.

19. Oct 9, 2007

### Morbius

vanesch,

Part of the current Administration's plan is to overturn the ban on reprocessing; a proposal that has many environmentalists
up in arms. Courtesy of The New Scientist:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8639.html

"Signs that the US could be about to overturn a 30-year ban on nuclear fuel reprocessing have been greeted with alarm by

MOX re-use will save perhaps !0% per cycle. The recycled Pu will be fission and tranmute more
U-238 to Pu - so that you have more Pu to recycle..... With each cycle through the reactor; you
get a couple percent of the original uranium converted to Pu-239. In fact, during the typical 3 years
that a fuel assembly spends in the reactor, about 40% of the energy that is extracted from that
fuel assembly in the 3 year period comes from fissioning Plutonium that was created in situ.

http://online.wsj.com/public/articl...25tzFzwMfY_20070125.html?mod=tff_main_tff_top

"If the technology works, it could vastly reduce the amount of spent nuclear waste that would have to be buried in underground
storage, such as at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, set to open after 2012...
The heart of the initiative is reprocessing technology called UREX+ being developed by Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
It is a method of removing plutonium and other long-lived radioactive elements in spent nuclear fuel that makes the elements
reusable in nuclear power plants, but difficult to use for making nuclear weapons."

If nuclear waste is reprocessed and recycled; then the lifetime of the waste is greatly reduced. One
no longer has long lived actinides like Pu-239 with a 24,000 year half-life in the waste stream. The
longest lived fission product of any consequence is Cesium-137 which as a 30 year half life.

The whole problem with a storage repository is certifying it for thousands of years. If that requirement
is dropped because the waste is no longer that long-lived; the repository could easily be licensed.

California, for instance; has a ban on any new nuclear power plants being built in the state until the
waste depository comes online.
Breeder technology will first be deployed as "actinide burners" - reactors to deplete the current
stockpile of actines in current spent fuel.

Dr. Gregory Greenman
Physicist

Last edited: Oct 9, 2007
20. Oct 9, 2007

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
There are more efficient ways to "spread plutonium around the world"

Point is, as it stands now, Pu can only be recycled once in LWR, because of the isotopic degradation and the continued production of minor actinides. The only sensible way to use plutonium in several cycles is in a fast spectrum. At least in France (and in countries "attached" to the French fuel cycle) a second MOX cycle is not really possible with actual PWR designs as far as I understand. Further irradiation of the Pu vector will only increase the Pu-240 and 242 content (which is not fissionable in a thermal spectrum), and increase the Am-241 and Am-243 content.

Yes, but it is not sufficient to *extract* the hot and long living stuff, you must also *burn* it. And most of it only burns well in a fast spectrum.

Yup, that's right. It's the whole greens misunderstanding of the nuclear issue: they've been fighting hardest exactly those aspects of nuclear technology which are most environmentally-friendly, like fuel reprocessing and fast reactors.

As to the need for "proliferation-proof" fuel cycles, I'm sceptical, for two reasons. First of all, it is very well possible to guard and protect the fuel cycle in most Western countries, and it is very easy to track stolen stuff. So it must be on the brink of impossible to steal unnoticed a large amount of material from the fuel cycle in most well-organized countries. The second reason is that a proliferator who really wants to make a bomb will succeed anyhow sooner or later without needing a foreign fuel cycle. The basic knowledge is in the open domain, and the technology is now more than 60 years old.
It is IMO more difficult to 1) get unnoticed hold of enough material by stealing and 2) make a bomb out of this "bad quality" material, than it is to produce high-quality material oneself and make a bomb out of that. Also, it's not because uranium and plutonium and other actinides are mixed, that there's a safeguard on extracting plutonium from it! Doing the plutonium extraction, it being a well-known chemical process, is not difficult to do.