Frank N. von Hippel
On June 24, 2021, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to accept the recommendation of its staff to discontinue developing regulations for commercial reprocessing in the United States. The NRC Staff argued that making rules for reprocessing was not "cost-justified" since "no industry stakeholders indicated that they plan to submit an application to the NRC for a reprocessing facility in the foreseeable future" and, even looking ahead 10-20 years, there was "limited interest expressed or expected from potential applicants for reprocessing facilities, including advanced reactor designers, in the near-term use of reprocessed spent fuel." At the same time, entrenched interests within the Department of Energy (DOE) and Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and a segment of the nuclear industry are trying to keep alive decades-old hopes for reprocessing and plutonium-fueled reactors.
Learning the reprocessing lesson, again
The NRC staff's work on developing regulatory guidance for US reprocessing was initiated sixteen years ago in response to Nevada's legal battle against Congress' imposition of a geological repository for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive waste. In 2005, the Congressional Appropriations Committees instructed the Department of Energy (DOE), "Given the uncertainties surrounding the Yucca Mountain [radioactive waste repository] license application process...we provide $50,000,000...for the Department [of Energy] to develop a spent nuclear fuel recycling plan." The committees gave the DOE two years to select a site for a government-financed reprocessing plant and three years thereafter to initiate construction.
This Congressional directive reflected the enthusiasm for reprocessing of Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), then chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and his former staffer, Clay Sell, who had been appointed Deputy Secretary of Energy in the administration of the second President Bush. In his 2004 memoir, A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy, Senator Domenici waxed almost lyrical about a 1998 tour he had been given of France's reprocessing plant at La Hague, concluding, "We must learn lessons from France's nuclear program" (pp. 161-163).
In 2006, Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the current author were informed by the then chair and ranking minority member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development that DOE had told them that reprocessing would be less costly than dry cask storage. At the time, the actual cost of reprocessing was ten times higher than that for dry-cask storage.
With the Republicans' loss of control of Congress in the 2006 election, the pressure on DOE to reprocess abated. Industry continued to press the NRC to develop regulations, however. In 2011, France's government-owned fuel-cycle company, AREVA, wrote to the NRC,
"Assuming a final [NRC] rule in 20l5...projections suggest that construction [of an AREVA reprocessing plant in the US] could begin as early as 2020, with receipt of used fuel in 2025, and initial fuel treatment in 2030. Licensing by the NRC is on the critical path."
GE-Hitachi wrote similarly
"to express the continuing commitment of General Electric-Hitachi (GEH) to developing our Power Reactor lnnovative Small Modular (PRISM)/Advanced Recycling Center (ARC) technology."
AREVA went bankrupt in 2016, and was down-sized and restructured under a new name, Orano. GE-Hitachi was unable to find customers for its liquid-sodium-cooled PRISM reactor.
The dream of sodium-cooled reactors refused to die, however. Lowell Wood, a protégé of Edward Teller, who had driven the development of US thermonuclear weapons, convinced Bill Gates that "traveling-wave" sodium-cooled reactors could revive nuclear power. Gates founded a company, Terrapower to foster the development of these reactors.
After the traveling-wave concept proved to be infeasible, Terrapower shifted to promoting sodium-cooled plutonium-breeder reactors of the type that the US Atomic Energy Commission and other leading nuclear-energy establishments around the world had developed in the 1960s and 1970s. This earlier effort had collapsed as global nuclear capacity plateaued after 1990 due to cost and safety concerns. Sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors had proven to be more costly and much less reliable than light-water reactors and the effort to commercialize them failed despite the expenditure of about $100 billion on research, development and demonstrations worldwide. The program's most important legacy was its facilitation of nuclear-weapon proliferation to India (see, for example, Frank von Hippel, Masafumi Takubo and Jungmin Kang, Plutonium: How Nuclear Power's Dream Fuel Became a Nightmare (Springer, 2019)).
The persistence of US interest in reprocessing comes in large part from Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the center since the 1960s and 1970s of US efforts to develop sodium-cooled plutonium breeder reactors. INL has remained enamoured with its concept of Integral Fast Reactor complexes in which groups of sodium-cooled plutonium-breeder reactors would have their own "pyroprocessing" plants (INL's preferred reprocessing technology) onsite to recycle plutonium from their spent fuel into fresh fuel. INL has sustained its pyroprocessing program for three decades by using it to convert the spent fuel of its shutdown Experimental Breeder Reactor II (EBR II) into a stable waste form suitable for disposal in a deep-underground radioactive waste repository. The EBR II fuel could not be disposed directly in a spent fuel repository because it contains liquid sodium to conduct heat from between the fuel "meat" and cladding. Sodium burns on contact with air or water. INL's pyroprocessing program has, however, suffered huge cost overruns and schedule slippages, and has failed in its mission to produce stable radioactive waste forms.
Idaho's Republican Senators took the lead in the effort to get DOE funding to promote the demonstration of sodium-cooled reactors. They were joined by an influential group of Senate Democrats who had become convinced that a revival of nuclear power would be necessary to achieve the goal of phasing out fossil fuels. Together, the bipartisan group managed to pass the Nuclear Energy Innovations Capabilities Act of 2017 which mandated that DOE pursue the construction of a "versatile reactor-based fast neutron source" and bring it into operation by 2025.
Under the Trump Administration, DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, led by a former INL staffer, decided to contract with Terrapower and GE-Hitachi to construct a multi-billion dollar, plutonium-fueled "Versatile Test Reactor" (VTR) at INL to test fuels and materials for fast-neutron reactors. It also initiated a cost-sharing arrangement with Terrapower and GE-Hitachi for the construction of a "Natrium" demonstration power reactor (natrium is Latin for sodium). The designs of both reactors are based on the PRISM reactor, whose design is based in turn on that of the EBR II, which operated at INL from 1964-94. Congress has thus far only supplied the first tranches of funding for these efforts.
The INL fuel design that GE-Hitachi and Terrapower have adopted must be reprocessed to create a stable waste form. On May 19, 2021, DOE announced a $40 million initiative to "limit the amount of waste produced from advanced nuclear reactors" - code for reprocessing - and, on June 28, 2021, it announced a cost-sharing agreement under which Argonne National Laboratory is to transfer pyroprocessing technology for separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to Oklo, a $25-million startup that proposes to mass-produce potassium-cooled, 1.5 megawatt fast-neutron microreactors, which would also use the INL fuel design.
In parallel, in Canada, Moltex, a UK startup, proposes to pyroprocess spent Canadian nuclear fuel to obtain plutonium to fuel small molten-salt-cooled fast-neutron reactors, and to make Canada a hub for exporting these reactors and their small pyroprocessing plants. Canada's Ministry of Natural Resources has announced a CAD50.5 million grant in support the development of this proposal. A group of senior US nonproliferation experts wrote to Canada's government requesting a non-proliferation and waste-management review of Moltex's proposal. A similar request for a nonproliferation review of DOE's promotion of reprocessing has been submitted to the Biden Administration.
Reprocessing is much more costly than spent-fuel storage and direct disposal. Since nuclear energy is already struggling economically to compete with renewables, making it still more costly will do it no favors. And DOE's promotion of pyroprocessing could once again legitimize reprocessing R&D in countries seeking a nuclear-weapon option.