Henry Waxman – ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee – had the Congressional General Accounting Office sue Vice-President Cheney last month, demanding a “full accounting of who served on and staffed the vice president’s [energy] task force, who spoke to its members and what these people told the task force.” According to Waxman, big bad “energy industries” had special access to Cheney’s task force, while greenies, tree-huggers and eco-wackos were “virtually ignored.”
Of course, Waxman is mostly attempting to pin the blame for the Enron scandal on the Bush-Cheney administration. But he also intends to discredit certain parts of the Bush energy plan.
In particular, Cheney’s task force recommended that the decision by President Carter to forego the reprocessing of “spent fuel” be revisited. They even went so far as to recommend research, development and deployment of reprocessing methods – such as “pyroprocessing” – that “reduce waste streams” and “enhance proliferation resistance.”
Now, the first commandment in the eco-wacko religion is that spent fuel must never be reprocessed. Never, never, never. They believe that reprocessing will make plutonium – produced in the partial burn-up of nuclear power plant fuel – available for terrorists to beg, borrow or steal. Once obtained by terrorists, Jimmy Carter and the eco-wackos believe their nuclear physicists, metallurgists, chemists, machinists, electronics and high-explosive experts could construct – in some dank cave in the mountains – a nuclear weapon or two.
So what is “pyroprocessing”? It’s a process developed by Argonne National Lab for use in its Integral Fast Reactor, a program halted – but not killed – by the Clinton administration, just as the IFR prototype began operation.
“Fast” means that the reactor uses fast neutrons to cause fission, so it does not need a moderator and does not require “enriched” fuel. Ordinary reactors use water as a moderator to “thermalize” neutrons, which can then cause fission in enriched fuel.
“Integral” means that when fuel elements have achieved optimum burn-up in the reactor, they are robotically removed and reprocessed in a facility located right next to the reactor, inside the containment structure. The fissionable materials not yet burned are separated out and then robotically fabricated into new fuel elements and recycled through the reactor.
Because of the recycling, the IFR will produce about 200 times as much electricity from a given amount of Uranium as does the conventional light-water nuclear reactor. As a consequence, new fuel elements need never be shipped in, nor waste shipped out, during the plant’s entire operating life.
Furthermore, because the mildly radioactive long half-life ‘actinides’ – plutonium and other man-made heavy elements – will be burned up, only the highly-radioactive short half-life stuff will remain as waste. Now, we know how to build containment structures – such as the reactor containment structure, itself – that will last the few hundred years needed for the highly radioactive stuff to decay away. But, if the eco-wackos have their way and we are not allowed to reprocess spent fuel, we will somehow have to build at Yucca Mountain a spent-fuel repository that is guaranteed to last the several hundred thousand years needed for the mildly radioactive stuff to decay away. Good luck.
Perhaps the most important application for IFR technology would be the peaceful disposition of the 100 metric tons of plutonium obtained from 30,000 U.S. and Russian dismantled nuclear weapons. Metallic plutonium from our dismantled weapons could simply be added to new fuel elements as they are fabricated in the IFR recycling facility.
The Russians would like to burn-up their excess plutonium as mixed-oxide fuel in their own integral fast reactor – the BN-600 – which has been operating for about 20 years at Zarechny.
Now, the Clinton-Gore administration wanted to mix all 100 metric tons of mildly radioactive excess plutonium with highly radioactive waste and bury it in the ground. The Russians flat refused to do that. So the Clinton-Gore fall-back plan to achieve essentially the same result was to allow them to make mixed-oxide fuel which would be run through a conventional light-water reactor.
Of course, if we and the Russians continue to ignore the eco-wackos and do what makes sense, and build a slew of integral fast reactors, it might lead to a worldwide rebirth in nuclear power. But think about how happy the eco-wackos will be with the result. For the next several hundred years, all that economic growth, all those increases in the standard of living, with no pollutants or greenhouse gases emitted. Now, how could Jimmy Carter and Henry Waxman possibly object to that?