Outlining his positions on energy last week, Secretary -designate Steven Chu listed three technologies that “would be nice to have, but are not ready for use, either because they are too expensive to be practical, or not demonstrated to be safe.”
They were: 1) sequestering the carbon dioxide from power plants; 2) making ethanol from cellulose; and 3) recycling nuclear fuel to reduce its volume and recover unused fuel.
Well, he’s right about the carbon sequestering and cellulose. And two out of three ain’t bad.
Carbon sequestering may never be ready for prime time. Robert Socolow, head of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton, has calculated that it would take “an oil field six times the size of the smallest of what the industry calls ‘giant fields,’ of which some 500 exist,” to accommodate the average coal plant.
Moreover, carbon dioxide is not a friendly substance. At 15 percent of the atmosphere it is lethal. Underground repositories would have to be stored at high pressure and an accidental escape would be disastrous. CO2 is heavier than air and would settle on the earth’s surface, possibly killing thousands. No one has even thought of the insurance aspects yet.
Ethanol made from cellulose — the woody and non-edible portions of a plant — is one of those futuristic technologies that keep receding over the horizon. Bacteria are required to break cellulose into sugars that can be fermented. Those bacteria thrive in the stomachs of cows and termites but have never been cultivated on an industrial scale. Numerous experimenters are trying, but no one is even sure that it can be done.
But how does nuclear reprocessing make the list? If nuclear recycling is “too expensive to be practical” and “not proven to be safe,” then Steven Chu must be the present King of France.
The French have been reprocessing nuclear fuel since the 1970s — about the time we gave it up. The French now recycle all the spent fuel from their 65 reactors — which provides them with 75 percent of their electricity. They do it so well they are also recycling for other countries. They are even buying enriched uranium from old Soviet weapons stocks, “blending it down” with uranium mine tailings (another “waste” product) and selling it to us as reactor fuel. Although few people seem to realize it, one out of every ten light bulbs in America is now powered by a former Soviet weapon.
By the time the French are finished reprocessing, they have nothing of what we would call “nuclear waste.” A small amount of highly radioactive material remains. It could be processed into industrial and medical isotopes, but it does not make economic sense right now. So the French put it into storage. All their “nuclear waste” from thirty years of producing 75 percent of their electricity is kept beneath the floor of one large room at Le Havre.
How did the French get so far ahead of us? In the 1970s they realized they had no other choice. “We don’t have oil but we have ideas,” was the slogan with which they sold the public. (Our implicit slogan, by contrast, was “We don’t have ideas but we have plenty of coal.”) Once you commit to nuclear, reprocessing makes perfect sense. After the first “burn,” almost half the potential energy in a fuel rod still remains. “One-third of our electric power now comes from recycled fuel rods,” says Jacques Besnainou, head of Areva’s American operations. “We call spent fuel ‘the new uranium mines.'”
Besides yielding more energy, spent fuel is also a source of valuable medical and industrial isotopes. Forty percent of all medical procedures now use radioactive tracers and it’s a $10 billion business — except we import 100 percent of our medical isotopes from Canada. All our material is headed for Yucca Mountain.
In one respect, however, Chu is correct. It is probably too late and too expensive to initiate our own reprocessing effort here. France is far ahead of us and it will be much cheaper to import the technology. Areva, the French nuclear company, is already building a $2 billion uranium enrichment plant in Idaho Falls and a $350 million manufacturing facility for nuclear components in partnership with Northrop Grumman at Newport News. It is also reviving the Barnwell, South Carolina facility — originally abandoned by the Carter Administration — that will turn surplus plutonium from the weapons program into “mixed oxide” fuel that can power nuclear reactors.
Yes, Mr. Secretary-designate, nuclear reprocessing is alive and well. It just isn’t an American technology anymore. But that’s what comes from being phobic about all things nuclear.