Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Radiation Warning

Much has been written already across the blogosphere about the egregious 2007 budget plan the Bush White House recently released. No big surprise that national defense and Homeland Security get a boost while over a hundred social programs get reduced or axed altogether. Flipping through the science news, however, I found a little tidbit from the budget that hasn't gotten much press yet and probably should.

From RedOrbit:

President George W. Bush on Monday asked the U.S. Congress for $250 million in research funds to restart a controversial program that would reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

The United States abandoned the technology in the 1970s because it was too expensive and there was fear terrorist groups or rogue nations could get access to the plutonium and make nuclear bombs.

To those who think this sounds familiar, it should; it's the same thing the White House has accused Iran of attempting to do. Bush is proposing that the U.S. resume processing spent nuclear fuel rods as a way of dealing with the nuclear waste problem in the country.

The article continues:

Under the recycling program, the administration said the United States would partner with other countries to establish the infrastructure necessary to supply nuclear fuel to other nations.

The White House said its plan "will help meet the growing demand for electricity in the developing world through an international framework that will promote emissions-free, safe nuclear energy and eliminate the need for foreign countries to build enrichment recycling capabilities."

Now, on the surface, this almost seems like a good idea. But like just about every proposal the Bush White House dreams up, the real information lies in what they're not telling us.

The first thing the White House seems to be ignoring is the egregious environmental effect that reprocessing nuclear waste has.

From the Nuclear Information and Resource Service:

The Bush / Cheney administration and its congressional allies are intent on reversing over 30 years of extraordinarily rare common sense in nuclear policy. In the 1970s it was decided that irradiated fuel and the plutonium it contains, should be treated as waste–not as a resource. This was in part due to the catastrophic failure after only one year of operations at West Valley, New York–the only commercial reprocessing site to operate in the U.S. West Valley’s reprocessing mess is still not cleaned up – and the projected cost is over $5 billion.

Every reprocessing site (France, UK, Russia, and soon Japan have the largest sites) is an environmental catastrophe, with massive releases of radioactivity to air, land and water; high worker radiation exposures; and residues that are harder to handle than the terrible waste it begins with. Reprocessing creates stockpiles of nuclear
weapons-usable plutonium, and is unviable without large taxpayer subsidies. President Carter banned reprocessing as a nuclear non-proliferation measure; while Reagan lifted the ban, no commercial interest has pursued this expensive
boondoggle, since it is not a profitable enterprise. Our current president apparently intends for taxpayers to pay for the relapse to reprocessing.

It's worth noting also that the depleted uranium in contained in spent nuclear fuel rods is not just a little bit toxic. It delivers a dose of radiation lethal to humans in minutes. It's a very dangerous material, which is why discussions of its disposal are so contentious.

Essentially the process breaks down like so:

Uranium fuel rods can only sustain a fuel-level of fission for about 18 months before they are no longer usable. However, they are still incredibly radioactive (actually moreso than when they were "fresh") and contain certain other elements like plutonium, cesium and strontium. The current reprocessing method takes the spent fuel rods, which are pellets about half the size of a LifeSavers roll, and dissolve them in nitric acid, creating a highly radioactive toxic "stew" that is then reprocessed to remove the uranium-238 and plutonium from the mixture. The u-238 and plutonium are then processed into a fuel called MOX or "mixed oxide". According to NIRS, this MOX fuel is much harder to control in a reactor, though today's nuclear reactors can make use of it. It's also much harder to reprocess after it is spent as well, thus negating much of a recycling benefit on nuclear waste.

An additional problem, and the part that really impacts national security, is the creation of fissile material. About 98% of all the uranium occurring in nature is U-238, which is not useful as a fissile material. The tiny remainder, U-235, is an isotope which is required for the fission process. Most of the older nuclear reactors in use today make use of this naturally occurring uranium mixture. However, nuclear bombs require a much higher percentage of u-235. Since the two kinds of uranium are chemically identical but have different masses, they can be separated in a centrifuge and the amount of u-235 can then be increased in the fissile uranium mass. Behold, then, the wonder of uranium enrichment. Nuclear bombs require in the neighborhood of 80-90% enrichment of u-235 to be a viable weapon, which is the reasoning behind concern when nations like Iran begin building enrichment centrifuges. Complicating the matter, however, is that today's "light water" reactors also use enriched uranium, though at a 3-5% enrichment not useful for nuclear bombs. Thus, the enrichment process has both a practical and not-so-practical use, making regulation difficult.

Another by-product of nuclear waste, plutonium, can also be used to make nuclear bombs. It takes about 10 kg of pure plutonium-239 to make a nuclear bomb. Most countries, like the U.S. and France, use special reactors particularly to create the necessary plutonium for bomb construction. Plutonium is no longer found in the Earth's crust in any significant amount (though it is found dispersed into the atmosphere thanks to past weapons tests). Any reprocessing program to create MOX fuel also creates a stockpile of fissile plutonium that could be very dangerous in the wrong hands.

A few things about nuclear power really haven't changed much in the past 30 years. The waste from nuclear power plants is still a major problem and a very real threat to our environment. The materials used in a nuclear reactor and the waste produced are also useful in creating the most horrific weaponry known to man. Nuclear proliferation seems to get little attention in Washington, both, I think, because the problem is so huge and so serious and because many technical and international complications are involved. The fact remains, however, that the U.S. and other nuclear-armed nations have massive stockpiles of these weapons and they're not likely to disappear any time soon. Bush's sudden interest in the reprocessing of nuclear waste is yet another boon to private energy interest, though in the past the process was eschewed for its costs.

Personally, I think it's a lousy fiscal trade-off in a time of ballooning deficits and shrinking social programs. Our technology and frankly our domestic security need serious improvements before reprocessing spent nuclear fuel becomes a viable program.

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