Is Reprocessing the Answer to Eliminating Fissile Materials from Bombs and Nuclear Waste?
President Obama promised to eliminate 34 tons of plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program as part of this week’s nuclear security summit. But how does one actually get rid of bomb-making material that has a half-life of more than 20,000 years?
One way is to burn it in nuclear reactors. Already, roughly half of the electricity generated from nuclear power plants in the U.S. comes from the fissile materials out of Russian warheads, albeit highly enriched uranium, the other fissile material used in bombs. Such reprocessing might also help cope with nuclear waste.
In fact, Obama’s recently appointed Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has specifically chosen to investigate the possibility of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods. After all, the French, Japanese and others routinely do so—and the South Koreans and Indians would like to do so.
“[Reprocessing] displaces the need for 25 percent of the uranium, it displaces some enrichment,” says nuclear engineer Alan Hanson, executive vice president of technologies and used-fuel management at Areva, a French nuclear power company that conducts that country’s reprocessing. “We need to destroy this material. If you think this stuff [plutonium] is so bad, what’s so bad about burning it up?”
In essence, reprocessing involves taking the spent nuclear fuel from reactors and separating out the plutonium and other fission byproducts. Chemicals, such as nitric acid, are applied to the spent fuel, and solvents then separate out the fission byproducts, including uranium and plutonium. The separated byproducts (or downblended fissile materials from nuclear weapons) are then combined with fresh uranium to create a new fuel—so-called mixed oxide (MOX) fuel—that can be used in modified existing reactors. In that subsequent use, some of the plutonium is destroyed via fission.
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