Nuclear, Reactors

NUCLEAR POWER ENGINEERING

Issue 2 and Volume 100.

NUCLEAR POWER ENGINEERING

Plutonium

Steven E. Kuehn

Recently, the American Nuclear Society (ANS) convened a special panel to study the issues surrounding the need to protect and manage plutonium. The substance, both reviled and revered, is a byproduct of both civil and military nuclear activity, and its proper care is important to just about all segments of international society.

The study`s conclusions and key recommendations were presented at the ANS Winter Meeting held last October. The ANS Special Panel`s paper, “Excerpt of the Report of the Special Panel, Protection and Management of Plutonium,” contained 14 major conclusions, seven of which pertained to the long-term civil use of plutonium.

The panel concluded that improved energy generation and end-user efficiency will continue to constrain energy growth in industrialized countries, but energy demand, especially for electric power, will increase steadily in developing countries. The panel said, “We cannot expect and should not wish these countries to forgo the benefits of abundant energy that the industrial world has enjoyed for so long.”

All sources of energy, including fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear and energy efficiency, will have to be drawn upon to meet expected demand growth in an environmentally acceptable manner. Nuclear power use, the panel said, will take place primarily in industrialized countries, and that makes fossil resources more accessible and more affordable for developing countries.

Regarding proven reserves of reasonably priced uranium, the panel concluded that there are insufficient amounts to support nuclear power`s growing contribution to world energy demand. And although the panel conceded that additional uranium resources will be discovered, there is no law of nature that assures the rate of discovery will match increasing demand enough to satisfy the reliance on power reactors that use only 1 percent of the available energy in uranium. However, breeder reactors can overcome this deficiency, but the panel said it was impossible to predict when their use might become necessary.

The panel agreed that the current level of breeder reactor development in Japan and other countries is adequate until the timing for the need for breeder technology is better defined. Furthermore, the decision to halt all advanced reactor research in the United States, said the panel, should be reversed because it limits options regarding the development of proliferation-resistant fuel cycles and other technologies that can reduce growing stocks of weapons-grade nuclear material. In closing, the panel suggested that while there are three fuel-cycle options available to countries using nuclear energy, no one option is generally preferable over another.

What is more important, and what links nuclear power users together, said the panel, is the pressing need to develop safe and permanent nuclear waste repositories. Nevertheless, if a given country`s fuel cycle includes recycling of spent uranium fuel, resulting plutonium production levels should not surpass projected consumption levels in an effort to calm proliferation fears.

In a paper containing his remarks to a meeting of the Special Panel, Glenn T. Seaborg found that one result of the study was that the goals of a sound nonproliferation policy and a sound energy policy lead to the same thing: The best way to limit proliferation risks from a peaceful nuclear fuel cycle is to burn plutonium and the only way to meet future energy demand in an environmentally safe way is to make full use of uranium`s energy by burning plutonium too.