Friday, February 10, 2006

Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: So Much for that Idea!

Most of the ideas presented in the State of the Union speech this year have been fisked ad nauseum, and the proposals in the new budget have met a similar fate.  One of the items in the new budget, however, is not getting as much negative attention as it deserves.
Bush's Budget Seeks $250 Mln for Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plan

Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- The Bush administration, reversing a 29-year-old government policy, is seeking to reprocess the waste produced by nuclear reactors in the U.S. and other nations.

The administration requested $250 million in the budget it unveiled today for development of a process to reduce and recycle radioactive waste. The process would foster expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. by reducing by 80 percent the amount of waste sent to the storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.  [...]
The idea is to have the USA gather spent nuclear fuel from other nations, and extract the plutonium from it.  On the surface, this seems like a good idea.  But what do our own experts at the US Dept. of Energy think of it?
Department of Energy Research Contradicts Administration Claims of Proliferation-Resistant Reprocessing
New Initiative Would Make Nuclear Terrorism Easier
February 9, 2006

In testimony today, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman reiterated administration claims that its new initiative to extract plutonium—which can be used to make nuclear weapons—from spent nuclear reactor fuel will use a "proliferation-resistant" technology that would make the plutonium inaccessible and undesirable to terrorists and states pursuing nuclear weapons. However, this claim is contradicted by prior research conducted by two Department of Energy (DOE) scientists: Dr. E. D. Collins from DOE's Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, and Dr. Bruce Goodwin of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"Perhaps Dr. Bodman is unaware of this technical work," noted Dr. Edwin Lyman, Senior Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "It clearly demonstrates that the administration's new reprocessing program will pose a serious risk that terrorists could acquire the material needed to make a nuclear weapon from a U.S. facility."
The idea behind reprocessing is to mix plutonium with more radioactive elements, and convert it into powder or liquid forms.  However, the DOE experts claim that any known method of reprocessing would not make the plutonium any more difficult to steal, and it would make it more difficult to keep track of the exact quantity of plutonium being handled.
Because it would be converted to liquid and powder forms, it is difficult to precisely measure and keep track of this material. There are several instances in which foreign reprocessing plants have been unable to account for enough plutonium to make ten or more nuclear weapons for over a period of months or years.  The modified reprocessing technologies in DOE's proposal would make this problem even worse, because the mixture of plutonium and other elements would be even harder to precisely measure.
So why would we spend $250 million on a program that our own experts think is not going to work?  Where is that money really going to go?  Is this like the "Star Wars" stategic defense initiative: just a givaway to defense contractors?  Or is it a way of funding some other kind of nuclear research, something that they would rather not fund openly?