Areva shepherds fuel recycling proposal into U.S. policy minefield

Think big or go home. That used to be the Ontario way: anybody who has looked at Ontario’s three nuclear power plants knows that the people who built them were big thinkers and big doers. No surprise then that the three bidders in the ongoing billion-dollar reactor competition are AECL, Westinghouse, and Areva. And on the basis of stakeholder communications, you have to admit that Areva is the biggest thinker out of the three.

Take the issue of what to do with spent reactor fuel. As I mentioned back in March (see article), this issue is not for the faint of heart. It involves billions of dollars, and the U.S.—home to the world’s biggest inventory of spent fuel—has committed trillions of dollars elsewhere.

Fuel recycling also involves the worldwide effort to prevent weapons proliferation. In this context the U.S. president, embarrassed by winning the Nobel Peace Prize for yet-to-be-conceived (let alone undertaken) efforts on anti-proliferation, will be extra careful to choose future actions that help him live up to the prize.

Areva is already earning points on the antiproliferation front by building, with the Shaw Group, a plant to make mixed-oxide (MOX) reactor fuel from military plutonium. The Tennessee Valley Authority has agreed to use this MOX fuel in its power reactors. This will directly reduce the worldwide stockpile of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. The Obama administration is surely applauding this.

But the Areva-Shaw venture is for military plutonium. Getting rid of the plutonium in spent civilian reactor fuel is another story, and there is no similar consensus on how, or even whether, to do it. Areva’s proposal for dealing with the plutonium in spent reactor fuel is sure to raise hackles among anti-proliferation advocates. This raises the risk of the company winding up on the wrong end of an administration decision.

Antiproliferation advocates will oppose Areva’s proposal because it involves a separative chemical process called COEX (coextraction of uranium and plutonium from spent fuel). As far as antiproliferation advocates are concerned, any separative technology ought to be a non-starter, because it hypothetically takes proliferators at least one step closer to obtaining plutonium from spent power-reactor fuel.

Of course, subjecting U.S. spent fuel to COEX or any other separative process is not in itself a proliferation threat. America already has tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium (the destruction of which is the whole idea behind the Areva-Shaw plant).

The problem is the example. If the U.S. were to adopt a COEX-based route to recycling spent fuel, that would “legitimize” the process. A would-be proliferator, in another country, could hide behind this cloak of legitimacy to misuse COEX in order to attempt to recover plutonium for weapons.

Those who think this scenario is far-fetched should have another look at the Iran problem. Iran is using the alleged peaceful status of the light water reactor to legitimize its uranium enrichment program. This pseudo-argument only works on those who don’t know or don’t care how Iran came by its enrichment centrifuge technology. For the record, Iran bought the centrifuge designs in secret from A.Q. Khan, who had stolen them from his Dutch employer in the 1970s.  The world found out in 2002, when an Iranian opposition group reported the effort. The Iranian regime would have preferred the world find out by reading a seismograph.

For antiproliferation advocates, the moral of the Iran story is: never underestimate the power of pseudo-arguments. Iran is using one to buy time as it races to enrich enough uranium for a few bombs. So far, the stratagem appears to be succeeding. For the antiproliferation crowd, the prospect of a proliferant state misusing a separative recycling technology in an effort to build a plutonium bomb, and explaining it away on the grounds of its inalienable right to peaceful nuclear technology—exactly as Iran is doing with its centrifuges—is very real.

Areva will have to find a better way to deal with this argument. The company’s current communication strategy of pointing up the antiproliferation advantages of MOX fuel on the basis of the Areva-Shaw plant risks damaging its credibility. Areva argues as if the antiproliferation people are against making MOX fuel from military plutonium, when in fact they are against making MOX from civilian spent fuel via COEX. The Obama administration will likely listen hard to the antiproliferation crowd.  Areva needs a better argument for COEX.

Still, you can’t blame the company for pushing COEX. An Areva executive told me that if you made new fuel out of all the spent civilian fuel in the U.S., you could run the entire American reactor fleet for eight years, night and day. If you assume a modest capacity factor of 90 percent, then those 104 U.S. reactors, with a total capacity of 100,635 megawatts, would generate over 6.3 trillion kilowatt-hours over eight years. At 5 cents per kWh, that electricity would be worth over $317 billion—more than $39.6 billion every year. That dollar value is why Areva is pushing its recycling case so hard.

The strategic question is, will Areva’s out-front communication, which I discussed back in May (see article), pay off? Bear in mind that the French company’s ultimate audience is the Obama administration, which has been playing its civilian nuclear cards close to the chest. Well, sometimes it’s better to be too loud than too quiet. Like I said, think big or go home.

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