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Are Washington’s ‘Advanced’ Reactors a Nuclear Waste? via The National Interest

Congress needs to look hard at the rationale for a fast reactor program.

by Victor Gilinsky Henry Sokolski

Late last year, the Energy Department (DOE), began work on a new flagship nuclear project, the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR), a sodium-cooled fast reactor. If completed, the project will dominate nuclear power research at DOE. The department’s objective is to provide the groundwork for building lots of fast-power reactors. This was a dream of the old Atomic Energy Commission, DOE’s predecessor agency. The dream is back. But before this goes any further, Congress needs to ask, what is the question to which the VTR is the answer? It won’t be cheap and there are some serious drawbacks in cost, safety, but mainly in its effect on nonproliferation.

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In the 1960s, when the Atomic Energy Commission concentrated on fast reactors (“fast” because they don’t use a moderator to slow down neutrons in the reactor core), it argued with a certain plausibility that uranium ore was too scarce to provide fuel for large numbers of conventional light-water reactors that “burned” only a couple percent of their uranium fuel. Fast reactors offered the possibility, at least in principle, of using essentially all of the mined uranium as fuel, and thus vastly expanding the fuel supply. To do this you operate them as breeder reactors—making more fuel (that is, using excess neutrons available in fast reactors to convert inert uranium to plutonium) than they consume to produce energy. The possibility of doing so is the principal advantage of fast reactors.

But we then learned there are vast deposits of uranium worldwide, and at the same time many fewer nuclear reactors were installed than were originally projected, so there is no foreseeable fuel shortage. Not only that, the reprocessing of fuel, which is intrinsic to fast reactor operation, has turned out to be vastly more expensive than projected. Finally, by all accounts fast reactors would be more expensive to build than conventional ones, the cost of which is already out of sight. In short, there is no economic argument for building fast reactors.

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With regard to nonproliferation, the issue that mainly concerns us is that the fast reactor fuel cycle depends on reprocessing and recycling of its plutonium fuel (or uranium 233 if using thorium instead of uranium). Both plutonium and uranium 233 are nuclear explosives. Widespread use of fast reactors for electricity generation implies large quantities of nuclear explosives moving through commercial channels. It will not be possible to restrict such use to a small number of countries. The consequent proliferation dangers are obvious. And while it is doubtful the U.S. fast reactor project will lead to commercial exploitation—few, if any, projects from DOE ever do—U.S. pursuit of this technology would encourage other countries interested in this technology, like Japan and South Korea, to do so.

One should add that one of the claims of enthusiasts for recycling spent fuel in fast reactors is that it permits simpler waste management. This is a complicated issue, but the short answer is that rather than simplifying, reprocessing and recycling complicate the waste disposal process.

With all these concerns, and the lack of a valid economic benefit, why does the Energy Department want to start an “aggressive” and expensive program of fast reactor development? It’s true that so far only exploratory contracts have been let, on the order of millions of dollars (to GE-Hitachi). But the Department is already leaning awfully far forward in pursuing the VTR. It estimates the total cost to be about $2 billion, but that’s in DOE-speak. We’ve learned that translates into several times that amount.

Read more at Are Washington’s ‘Advanced’ Reactors a Nuclear Waste? 

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