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WILLIAM TUCKER: Living in the Nuclear Past

By William Tucker

If you want to see a perfect example of a country living in its past while being upstaged by an upstart country living for the future, take a look at the negotiations going on right now between the United States and South Korea over the renewal of the nuclear fuel treaty that expires next year.

To get a little perspective, look at the accompanying picture.  That’s the foundation being laid for the containment structure in the first of four reactors that Kepco, the Korean nuclear company, is building for the United Arab Emirates.  They won the $20 billion contract by outbidding Westinghouse and Areva, who have been the world’s leading nuclear companies for the past 20 years.  

How long will it be before anyone builds something of these dimensions in the United States?  The Vogtle plant, licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in February 2012, is a Westinghouse AP1000.  It is scheduled for completion by 2017 but probably won’t make it until at least 2020.  China just completed the world’s first AP1000 and will probably have four more built by 2020.  By the it will be marketing its own version as well.  Kepco’s reactor is an APR1400, bigger than anything ever built in China or the United States.  It was started in 2011 and is on schedule to be completed in 2017.  

So what’s happening in those negotiations?  Well, the United States, which until 2012 hadn’t licensed a new reactor in 40 years, is telling South Korea, which has emerged as the world leader in nuclear construction, that it can’t reprocess its own nuclear fuel.  Instead, it has to leave it sitting around in storage pools the way we do.  Why?  Because back in the 1970s, when the treaty was first signed, we decided that the way to prevent the rest of the world from getting nuclear weapons was to stop processing our own spent fuel.  The strategy proved to be wildly off the mark, but we haven’t changed our minds since.  North Korea developing its own weapon, Iran enriching uranium, France’s development of a complete fuel reprocessing cycle – nothing has disabused us of the notion that we are barring the door to worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons by preventing ourselves and others from reprocessing spent fuel.

How did this misapprehension come about?  Well, you have to go back to 1974, when India had just used a Candu reactor given to them by Canada to extract plutonium and build a nuclear bomb.  About the same time, John McPhee, a writer for The New Yorker, met a fellow Princeton resident named Ted Taylor, who had designed battlefield nuclear weapons for the Army in the 1950s.  A bit of an eccentric, Taylor had become convinced that if he could build a nuclear weapon in his garage, anyone could.  He began to imagine domestic terrorists groups building such bombs and setting them off in American cities.  “I think we have to live with the expectation that once very four or five years a nuclear explosion will take place that will kill a lot of people,” Taylor told McPhee in 1972.  “I can imagine – in the worst situation – hundreds of explosions a year.”  Where would they get the plutonium?  By stealing it from American reprocessing plants.

McPhee packaged all this into a New Yorker series that became The Curve of Binding Energy.  The book still sells well on Amazon.  Jimmy Carter bought the whole idea and defunded the Clinch River Breeder, which was designed to burn recycled material.  A consortium of companies that had invested $250 million in the Barnwell reprocessing plant in South Carolina walked away from the project – and that’s where we stand today.  In the process, we’ve managed to do is create a so-called problem of “nuclear waste.”

Meanwhile France went ahead with the technology and has complete reprocessing.  It was exporting MOX fuel to Japan before Fukushima and stores all 50 years of material that can’t be reprocessed into something useful beneath the floor of one room at Le Hague.  No one has yet stolen any plutonium.

So why can’t we at least admit we were wrong about reprocessing?  The problem is Washington is full of people who can’t accept America’s diminishing role in the world of energy.  My favorite example occurred a few months ago when Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Ed Markey announced they were going to block the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) from buying Nexen, a Canadian company.  (They didn’t.)   Or how about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission refusing to license Calvert Cliffs III because the consortium is 60 percent owned by Areva, a French company.  Are they afraid France might steal our nuclear secrets?   Yet somehow we continue to convince ourselves that if we allow someone somewhere to reprocess, the world will quickly be bristling with nuclear weapons.  

Of course it’s alright for us to pile up spent fuel rods in this country.  We’ve got Yucca Mountain and the WIPP project in New Mexico plus dozens of waste pools and dry cask storage sites around the country.  But South Korea is a country the size of Virginia with 50 million people and it doesn’t have that luxury.  Its storage facilities are already 70 percent full and they want to build 11 new reactors.  

So what’s going to happen?  The 1974 treaty expires next year and must be renewed.  If the Koreans won’t accept our terms, they risk losing their supply of enriched uranium.  But there are plenty of other potential sources around the globe.  Canada mines 25 percent of the world’s uranium, Australia 21 percent, Kazakhstan   16 percent and the Russians 8 percent.  We produce 4 percent.  France, Germany, China, Pakistan, India, Japan, Brazil, Argentina and a few others all have enrichment facilities.  Will one of them make an offer?  Don’t be surprised if they do.

The Koreans are already highly insulted and say we’re treating them criminals by not trusting them to enrich their own uranium and reprocess their own wastes.  Will we succeed in driving them into the arms of Russia or Pakistan?  It all comes from living in the past and thinking that everyone else is as intimidated by nuclear technology as we are.  


  • Ed Clark

    so how do you think that we should go about changing the status quo of the U.S.’s attitude toward reprocessing, William Tucker?

    • Elect different leaders. The problem is the Dems are renewables-infatuated, Repubs are fossil-fuel lovers, and Libertarians don’t want government funding for energy.

      I would also say public outcry, but a recent White House petition to revive the Integral Fast Reactor project killed by Clinton/Kerry couldn’t even garner 5000 votes.

      This is how great powers atrophy and become irrelevant.

      • George Carlin

        I think ideally the libertarians would not spend any government money on energy but would be much better at getting rid of idiotic regulations that strangle innovation. The governmental regulatory stranglehold on nuclear is a big reason why nuclear has stagnated for so many decades.

        • cjstevenson

          True. This would require a fundamental shift in the popular perception of nuclear power, though.

      • stevek9

        You are right about Dem’s, Repubs, and Libertarians. But not 100%. Each of those tribes have supporters for nuclear power. It may take China to show us we are being idiots, but it won’t take a lot for that support to increase to the point we do something … that and the speculative bubble of fracked methane to blow up.

  • drkennethnoisewater

    ISTR Reagan reversing Carter’s disastrous ban on reprocessing, but the damage was already done, and companies weren’t willing to risk the volumes of capital required to build reprocessing facilities in the US.

    Far better IMO to build molten salt reactors that could burn the waste “directly”, and reprocess it into high-quality heat for power and generation of fresh water, hydrocarbon fuels, etc.

    • Kirk Sorenson fan

      LFTR is where is where it’s at. Thorium is four times as abundant as uranium.

    • How would you burn used LWR fuel in a LFTR without preprocessing? You will still need a facility to vitrify and store the fission products.

      • cjstevenson

        The high-level idea is to dissolve (a piece of) the spent fuel rods into molten salt, and let the nuclear reactors hammer away at the transuranic material until all you have left is fission products. These products are continuously processed out of the fuel flow of the reactor (which is possible since everything is dissolved in liquid salt).

        • Ok, but then you are also introducing a lot of unwanted material (zirconium cladding, steel structural materials, non-volatile fission products) that will have undesirable chemical and neutronic effects. Most of these, including the uranium dioxide fuel itself, will neither melt nor dissolve in the molten salt at reactor temperatures. Also, when the 12 foot long SNF assemblies are broken up to add to the salt, volatile fission products are released. An NRC licensed pre-processing plant will be required if SNF is to be part of the feedstock.

          I think LFTR is worth investigating – I just don’t like seeing it promoted with unjustified claims.

          • Brian Mays

            Well, currently it’s just vaporware, and as we all know from the IT world, vaporware can do anything!

  • wjv3

    I hope the South Koreans have the sense to walk away from these nuclear reprocessing negotiations. Maybe it will bring the US Executive and NRC bureaucrats to their senses about SNF reprocessing. I have to agree with @drkennethnoisewater that since we’ve foregone the traditional methods of SNF reprocessing we might as well as not confound our error and take it up now. We’ve delayed long enough so that now there are much better methods on the horizon i.e. Molten Salt Reactors(MSR) especially designed to burn spent fuel and produce heat and electricity at the same time. The EROI for such a process is significantly higher than using MOX methods. I would call this a “no-brainer”, but one has to use that term carefully in the presence of the NRC, anti-nuke environists and many so-called progressives.

    So when are we going to take the billions yet to be spent on Yucca (or WIPP) and invest it into some fast-track research to get these MSRs and SMRs (small modular reactors) up a running by 2020? It can be done if we just have the political will to do it.

    • Our new Sec of Energy, although generally pro-nuclear, is not interested in MSRs. He will promote SMRs, and expanded dry cask SNF storage.

  • stevek9

    I agree we should not block the South Koreans from reprocessing. The reason S. Korea doesn’t just tell us to take a hike is a complicated situation between the US, S. Korea and a country called North Korea. Even if the South doesn’t reprocess it is not that big a deal. They are running out of storage space? … uhh build some more. It’s not like it is expensive or difficult. To say the country is too small or crowded is absurd, we are talking a few acres. Current reprocessing will disappear anyway, when breeders are built in this century, so it’s not so bad just to keep the spent fuel around.

    I wouldn’t be so pessimistic about the US and nuclear. We have been the leaders in so many areas for so long it’s treated as a catastrophe if it doesn’t continue in every field. Yes, China may become the world leader in the nuclear renaissance. Once they show the way, it won’t take us long to catch up (I mean we are building 4 AP1000’s). So, we may end up following this time … big deal. It’s not like we have suddenly lost the edge in everything … materials science, medicine, electronics, etc., etc. Plenty of countries have done well following us. I’m glad someone is picking up the slack here since the world needs nuclear power.

    By the way, China has not completed the first AP1000, although that should happen this year.

    • South Koreans want to pursue pyroprocessing – are being held back on rediculous non-proliferationist claims. But it’s also true they don’t want to damage their relationship with US, and could always move into more dry cask storage, as we have had to do, also for political reasons.