France Gives USA Access to Next Generation Nuclear Technology

PARIS, France, August 25, 2004 (ENS) - U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham Monday signed an agreement with France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) Chairman Alain Bugat that will allow cooperation between the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology and the French Atomic Energy Commission.

The agreement provides DOE access to the French PHENIX fast spectrum test reactor, which has "a capability that no longer exists in the United States," said Abraham.

The research advances the DOE's plan to build a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in the United States that produces nuclear fuel from the mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium (MOX) for use in nuclear reactors. France has such a facility, the Cogema MOX fabrication facility at La Hague.

Under the agreement signed Monday, the DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology and the CEA will perform an experimental irradiation project in the PHENIX reactor.

PHENIX

The PHENIX fast spectrum test reactor is located in the south of France southwest of Grenoble. (Photo courtesy CEA)

PHENIX, which originally began operation in 1973, is the only European power reactor where experiments in the transmutation of long-lived radionuclides are conducted, as required by a 1991 French law on research into radioactive waste management.

The project will test various types of fuel loaded with minor actinides - highly toxic, long-lived radioactive material contained in spent nuclear fuel. The experiment is intended to acquire data that will permit selection of the best performing fuel for future use in high-level nuclear waste transmuting systems, the DOE said.

The transmutation of nuclear waste involves treating spent reactor fuel to fundamentally change its characteristics. Light water reactors using MOX fuel, fast-spectrum reactors, and accelerator-driven systems are the transmutation systems now under consideration by the Energy Department, according a 2003 document produced by the agency's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology.

Secretary Abraham said Monday, "Nuclear energy technology has the potential to improve the quality of life for people around the world if we are successful in solving issues such as economics, waste and proliferation."

"This new implementing arrangement with the CEA is a positive step forward and will provide for updating, strengthening and expanding the prior understanding of nuclear fuel and fuel cycle related research and development," he said.

Abraham

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Photo courtesy DOE)
Abraham said the cooperation has provided access to French research and development that has saved the United States tens of millions of dollars.

The agreement builds on a meeting between DOE and CEA in September 2000 during the Clinton administration, said Abraham. At that meeting both organizations signed an agreement covering research and development cooperation in such areas as the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems Initiative and the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative.

The Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative is the Energy Department's term for the MOX fuel program.

In March 1999, the DOE signed a contract with a consortium comprised of Duke Energy, Cogema, and Stone & Webster to design and operate a Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, design the commercial MOX fuel, and use MOX fuel in commercial nuclear plants in the United States.

The Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative is aimed at "developing proliferation resistant fuel cycle technologies to reduce the volume and toxicity of commercial spent nuclear fuel and maximize energy from nuclear fuel," Director of the DOE Office of Science Dr. Raymond Orbach told the House Science Committee in February.

In 2003 the Los Alamos National Laboratory Systems Engineering and Integration Group produced an analysis of the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative that outlines exactly how it is intended to work.

"The Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative baseline scenario now is: burning uranium oxide (UOX) in a light-water reactor, the spent UOX is then processed with the Pu [plutonium] recycled into a MOX burning light-water reactor and the minor actinides saved for burning in a fast spectrum burner, and, once fast spectrum burners are now deployed, the separated minor actinides and spent MOX are recycled in a fast spectrum burner until completely burned," the Los Alamos technical group explained.

The Los Alamos group said its analysis "is and will be used to advise DOE on optimal transmutation strategies that feed into the Secretary of Energy's recommendation to Congress in 2007 as what to do about stockpiled civilian nuclear waste."

The Los Alamos team analyzed the effects of introducing multiple MOX recycles into a transmuting fuel cycle and found "the benefit of mixed oxide (MOX) recycling saturates at one recycle."

MOX

A MOX fuel assembly. Thirty nuclear facilities throughout the world use MOX fuel, which is composed of 95 percent uranium oxide and five percent plutonium oxide. Low enriched fuel normally used in U.S. commercial power plants contains only uranium oxide. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace France)
Environmentalists have opposed the MOX fuel program for years. President of the Nuclear Control Institute Paul Leventhal objected when the Bush administration first announced its interest in transmutation in its National Energy Policy of May 2001.

"The Bush energy plan endorses consideration of conventional reprocessing for waste management, which also separates plutonium for use as fuel in reactors. It also presses for pyroprocessing and accelerator transmutation of plutonium and other long-lived radioactive products in nuclear reactor spent fuel. Both approaches to reprocessing are uneconomic and dangerous," Leventhal said at the time.

Leventhal warned of the "enormous cost projected for establishing a pyroprocessing and transmutation system." The Department of Energy estimated in 1999 that this program would cost $280 billion and take 100 years to complete, he said.

Transmutation is "highly problematical and does not eliminate the need for a final waste repository," said Leventhal.

The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) warned as early as 1999 that transmutation of spent nuclear fuel is no guarantee against proliferation of weapons-useable plutonium.

"Accelerator transmutation proponents claim that their process is 'proliferation-resistant' because the spent fuel is processed using "electrorefining," which does not separate plutonium from other actinides and a few rare-earth fission products," the NCI said in a letter5 distributed to the Senate and key members of the Clinton administration on July 19, 1999. "However, numerous reviews have demonstrated that this process can be easily modified to produce purified, weapons-usable material."

Leventhal

Paul Leventhal is now president emeritus of the Nuclear Control Institute. (Photo courtesy NCI)
"Even if the plutonium is not purified, the residual fission product contamination is minor and would not provide an effective barrier to diversion or theft," NCI cautions. "Finally, the minor actinides themselves are now understood to be weapons-usable materials, so their presence will not reduce the attractiveness of the electrorefining product."

Still, the Bush administration is moving steadily towards the next generation of nuclear reactors. Generation IV refers to the development and demonstration of next generation nuclear energy systems that could be deployed commercially by 2030.

The DOE says these technologies "offer advantages in the areas of economics, safety and reliability, sustainability."

The French PHENIX fast spectrum test reactor is expected to play an important role in the development of the Generation IV international program.

The United States is a member of the Generation IV International Forum that now includes 10 other nations - Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Republic of South Africa, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The Forum members are currently negotiating international legal agreements to enable advanced nuclear research to be conducted on a multilateral basis.

The Forum is organized into interest groups associated with each of the six selected Generation IV systems. Selected in 2002, the six technologies are defined briefly by the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which Secretary Abraham established in 2002 as the center for the DOE's Generation IV nuclear research.

Generation IV reactors will include energy conversion systems that produce hydrogen, desalinated water and process heat, William D. Magwood, IV, director of the DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, told a House subcommittee in March.

Find out more about Generation IV nuclear systems online at: http://energy.inel.gov/gen-iv/

View a DOE projection for disposal of spent fuel generated under an assumed expansion of nuclear power in the United States online at: http://www.ne.doe.gov/pdf/AFCICompRpt2003.pdf

Learn more about MOX fuel at: http://www.cogema-inc.com/FAQs/MOX_fuel.htm