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Transmutation of Radioactive Wastes is “Nuclear Alchemy Gamble”

Hugely Expensive Technology Would Increase Environmental, Health, Safety And Nuclear Proliferation Risks, New Report Says

Washington, D.C. (May 24, 2000): Nuclear industry claims for a proposed radioactive waste management technology called “transmutation” are fundamentally deficient and overly optimistic according to a new report released today at the National Press Club. The Nuclear Alchemy Gamble: An Assessment of Transmutation as a Nuclear Waste Management Strategy, by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), warns of the high cost and technical limitations of transmutation, as well as the safety and environmental dangers it poses. Transmutation aims to convert long-lived radioactive waste components, such as plutonium, into short-lived or stable materials. Some proponents claim the technology could reduce the period over which nuclear wastes remain dangerous from millions of years to a few centuries.

“Transmutation will not solve the nuclear waste problem and could, in fact, make it worse,” said Hisham Zerriffi, principal author of the report and a Senior Scientist at IEER. “Even proponents of the scheme now acknowledge that a geologic repository would still be needed for much of the residual long-lived waste. Huge volumes of ‘low-level’ and transuranic waste will also be created. Moreover, proliferation dangers would increase due to repeated separation of plutonium and other transuranic materials in reprocessing plants. The waste transmutation program should be ended now, in its early phase, before needless expenditures and risks have been incurred.”

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is considering launching a transmutation program that is based on preliminary work done at the agency’s nuclear weapons laboratories, principally the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Argonne National Laboratory. Other countries, notably France and Japan, also have active research programs in place.

“Asking the public for huge sums of money for new reactor research and development under the guise of radioactive waste management appears to be largely a scheme to perpetrate the nuclear power industry using public opposition to waste repositories as an excuse,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of IEER. “Our research shows that the road will not only be costly and dangerous, but that it will also be a dead end. There is no magic bullet for solving the problem of long-lived nuclear waste.”

According to The Nuclear Alchemy Gamble, even transmutation proponents agree that many long-lived components of radioactive waste, such as cesium-135 and carbon-14, cannot be transformed into less dangerous forms because of fundamental limitations that cannot be overcome by technology development. Uranium, which makes up 94% of the mass of the spent fuel, cannot be transmuted because it would result in the production of even more plutonium. In some cases, the report notes, transmutation would create new and even more toxic transuranic radioactive materials, making the residual wastes far more dangerous per pound.

Transmutation of long-lived radionuclides into short-lived ones can only be done in a nuclear reactor. To be a useful management tool, the report points out, transmutation would require fast breeder reactors, a technology that has not been successfully commercialized after decades of effort, and billions of dollars of expenditures.

“France and Japan have long had breeder reactor programs that have proven to be costly, technically unreliable, and environmentally problematic. They also raise serous proliferation concerns,” according to Annie Makhijani, IEER Project Scientist and the report’s co-author. “Transmutation would only perpetuate these problems and add new ones. For instance, breeder reactor operation was never really mastered even with simpler plutonium fuels, yet would be far more complex with transmutation fuels, creating new safety risks.”

Many of these concerns already exist because of nuclear programs in countries outside the United States that attempt to use plutonium as fuel. Currently, a number of countries use mixed oxide (MOX) reactor fuel, a blend of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide. Several countries, including the United States, have also attempted to develop breeder reactors, which were supposed to produce more plutonium than they consumed.

Advanced transmutation schemes would require a complex, entirely new reactor type, called a sub-critical reactor, which would create significant new safety risks. These proposals would, in whole or in part, replace the ordinary critical reactors with a reactor that cannot sustain a chain reaction. In order to operate, such a “sub-critical” reactor requires an external source of neutrons, which would be produced by accelerated protons hitting a target of heavy metal. Work on Accelerator Transmutation of Waste (ATW) is being conducted at research facilities in several countries, including at Los Alamos. Proponents of such technologies claim it is safer than current reactors. The IEER report states that ATW systems could create new and little understood risks.

“Sub-critical systems can actually be more dangerous than conventional reactors if, as is often the case, there are more subsystems that can fail or initiate failures, and fewer backups,” noted Dr. Lawrence Lidsky, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a reviewer of the report. “Probabilistic risk analysis is a complex art, requiring a deep understanding of possible accident initiators and accident progression, and the ATW design is far too rudimentary at this time to apply this powerful tool. However, it is clear that the currently envisaged ATW systems are more complex than fission reactors, have more accident initiators, and many fewer backup safety systems.”

The report recommends a halt to transmutation research and the use of plutonium as a nuclear reactor fuel and urges creation of a sound, scientific program of studying waste disposal alternatives.