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The history of nuclear power’s imagined future: Plutonium’s journey from asset to waste via Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By William Walker

Two histories of nuclear power can be recounted. The first is the history of the active present.  It tells, amongst other things, of the technology’s evolution and role in electricity production, its military connections, installed types, capacities and performance of reactors, their fuelling and spent fuel discharges, their accidents, the supplying, operating and regulating institutions, and the involvement of states. The second is the history of the imagined future. It tells of how, at particular moments, nuclear power and much connected with it have been imagined playing out in years, decades, and even centuries ahead.

Plutonium’s history, of each kind, and its legacies are the subject of a recent book by Frank von Hippel, Masafumi Takubo and Jungmin Kang.[1] It is an impressive study of technological struggle and ultimate failure, and of plutonium’s journey from regard as a vital energy asset to an eternally troublesome waste.

[…]

The argument over nuclear futures became an international storm when the United States—champion of civil nuclear expansionism and main provider of nuclear technologies and materials—reversed course and mounted a campaign to halt reprocessing and the development of fast breeder reactors. 

[…]

The US government’s aggressive discouragement of reprocessing and fast breeder reactor programs was fiercely criticized abroad.  The Ford and then Carter administrations, backed by Congress, were accused of striving to kill the nuclear future by imposing constraints, often by extraterritorial means, on civil production, trade, and development in the nuclear sphere, and by encouraging anti-nuclear movements across the world.

In defiance, France and the UK launched ambitious programs to build large-scale reprocessing plants to supply plutonium for fast breeder reactors at home and in other Western industrial countries—notably Germany and Japan—that needed time to establish their own capabilities.[4] By the early 1980s, binding contracts and intergovernmental agreements had been signed. A circulatory system was envisaged in which spent fuels would be reprocessed in France and the UK and their products returned to the countries of origin, enabling the steady distribution of plutonium for the launch of fast reactors.

Unable to prevent this from happening, the United States shifted to a policy of, in effect, containment by gaining agreement on the reprocessing system’s scope and regulation. Being nuclear weapon states, France and the UK were granted de facto recognition as nuclear-reprocessing-states, to coin a term, with Germany and Japan, uniquely among non-nuclear weapon states, granted rights as nuclear-reprocessing-states-in-waiting. Rigorous safeguards and physical protection measures would be applied, no transfers of reprocessing technology would occur to states outside the Western alliance (and some within it, including South Korea), and the US would retain consent rights over the reprocessing of certain spent fuels delivered to France and the UK. France’s agreement to apply strict export controls, including cancellation of plans to transfer reprocessing technology to Pakistan and other “countries of concern,” and to act “as if” it were a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (France did not join until 1992) helped to calm US nerves.[5]

A binary nuclear system was thus instituted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One entailed the “total reprocessing” of spent nuclear fuels from installed thermal reactors. It was dedicated to realization of a plutonium-fueled future, albeit restricted to a limited set of industrial countries with two nuclear-weapons-states/nuclear-reprocessing-states at its hub.  The Soviet Union provided another hub in the Eastern Bloc, reprocessing spent fuels from satellite countries while keeping separated plutonium and fast breeder reactor development within the Russian heartland. The other system entailed the end of reprocessing and plutonium usage for civil purposes and the adoption of spent fuel storage and disposal as the standard, in effect creating a voluntary and involuntary community of “nuclear-non-reprocessing-states,” marshalled by the United States.

[…]

From creation of a future to preservation of the present

Construction of the British and French reprocessing plants at Sellafield and Cap de la Hague proceeded throughout the 1980s.[6] Their primary justification—preparing for the introduction of fast breeder reactors—had lost all credibility by the time of their completion. The German, British and French breeder programs had been cut back, soon to be abandoned, and in 1988 Germany cancelled plans to build its own bulk reprocessing plant at Wackersorf. Although Japan’s confidence in its fast breeder reactor program also waned, it was kept alive to avoid disrupting construction of the reprocessing plant at Rokkasho-mura.

Faced by the plutonium economy’s demise, reprocessing was re-purposed by its supporters to provide the industry and its governmental backers with reason not to do the obvious—abandon ship. Creating an essential future was replaced by a rationale designed to preserve and activate the newly established reprocessing infrastructures. 

[…]

Utilities became casualties of this shift in approach. Japanese utilities spoke of the “plutonium pressure” to which they would be subjected as plutonium extracted from their spent fuel was returned for insertion in operating thermal reactors, rather than being held in store for future fast breeder reactors. Reprocessing contracts had been entered into partly to relieve the spent fuel pressures building up at reactor sites and to avert the need to expand storage capacities there. They found themselves compelled by contractual obligation, threat of spent fuel’s return, and state-backed arm-twisting to shoulder the increasingly severe costs of reprocessing and engagement with plutonium recycling.

Thirty years after the Euro-Japanese reprocessing/recycling system’s launch, the experiment can only be judged a failure. 

[…]

Despite Europe’s retreat from reprocessing, von Hippel, Takubo, and Kang express worry that it remains alive, with its centre moving to Asia where investment in nuclear generating capacity is strongest.  Reprocessing continues in India and Russia, if fitfully, where fast reactor programmes are still being funded. Japan’s commitment remains.  Although none of these programs has significant momentum, they drag on. South Korea has also long expressed a desire, against US and other foreign objection, to embark on pyroprocessing of its spent fuel, a novel technique.

There is particular concern about China’s engagement with reprocessing and its dual civil and military purposes.

[…]

Even if all civil reprocessing ceased tomorrow, the experiment would have bequeathed the onerous task of guarding and disposing of over 300 tons of plutonium waste, and considerably more when US and Russia’s military excess is added in. Proposals come and go.  Burn it in specially designed reactors? Blend it with other radioactive wastes? Bury it underground after some form of immobilization? Send it into space? All options are costly and hard to implement. Lacking ready solutions, most plutonium waste will probably remain in store above ground for decades to come, risking neglect. How to render this dangerous waste eternally safe and secure is now the question.

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