The back end; a renewable resource

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Spent nuclear fuel is now being widely referred to as 'used' nuclear fuel and reprocessing is fast becoming 'recycling'. Before long, those countries that 'recycle' their 'used' nuclear fuel will claim that nuclear power is a renewable source of energy.

In fact, even without a reprocessing programme in place in his country, US president George Bush has already taken the lead and has referred to nuclear power as a "renewable source of energy" on numerous occasions. Despite receiving a letter at the beginning of 2005 from almost 50 environmental organisations stating: "Please be advised that nuclear power is not a renewable source of energy," Bush continues to refer to nuclear as renewable. Recently, during a visit to Cleveland, Ohio on 10 July, he said: "We need to be promoting nuclear power. If you're really interested in the environment, like a lot of people are, then we ought to be promoting a renewable source of energy that emits no greenhouse gases."

And earlier this year, when discussing his "energy initiative" at Wilmington, Delaware, Bush said: "I strongly believe that if we're that interested in greenhouse gases and renewable fuels, this country has got to be aggressive about establishing safe nuclear power."

Bush isn't the only one making such claims. During a 27 October 2005 debate in the UK's House of Lords on energy security, Lord Sainsbury, the then parliamentary under-secretary of state for trade and industry, said: "The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, offered me the opportunity of gaining the approval of the whole House by agreeing that nuclear is a renewable source of energy - it clearly is so. I am very happy to agree that nuclear is a renewable source of energy." Although Lord Sainsbury went on to note that there are environmental problems associated with nuclear power, his comments had already contributed to the 'greening' of nuclear power.

This is not to say that nuclear is without any green credentials. Certainly, if we accept that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not a good thing, then nuclear power is a clean source of energy from this perspective. But is it really helpful to 'green' nuclear power to the extent that we refer to it as a renewable source of energy?

For the benefit of those who are perhaps a little too keen to emphasise nuclear's green credentials, it is probably best to remove any doubt as to the answer to what was meant to be a rhetorical question: no, it is not only unhelpful, but likely to harm the industry. Terms such as 'recycling' should only be adopted if they genuinely improve clarity and are more accurate than the terms being replaced. Those responsible for bringing the term 'recycling' (in place of 'reprocessing') into widespread use must either believe they are doing the world a favour by introducing a more helpful term, or are attempting to manipulate public opinion into believing that nuclear is green. I'd put my money on the latter.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) is one of the key spinners when it comes to terminology. In its document titled Processing of Used Nuclear Fuel for Recycle, the word 'spent' is used just once - and only then because it is used within a quote.

Not all fuel is used before being removed from a reactor; if it were, there would be no way it could be 'recycled'. But for some reason, the WNA has clearly taken offence with the term 'spent' nuclear fuel, and has made a corporate decision to use a different term, even though it is a misleading one. While it could quite reasonably be argued that the term 'spent' is inaccurate, that does not justify changing it for another term that is at least as inaccurate. One could of course choose to use an accurate term, for example 'irradiated nuclear fuel' - but that's not likely to be very popular with the spinners.

Fortunately, the WNA has not dropped the term 'reprocessing' just yet, and the same document makes a distinction between reprocessing and recycling. Noting that reprocessing recovers uranium and plutonium, it states: "Both can be recycled as fresh fuel." Although there is some justification to the use of the word 'recycled' in this context - since a large proportion of 'used' nuclear fuel is unused and therefore available for reuse - the use of this word glosses over the details of the process. Uranium recovered from reprocessing has undergone physical changes that are not covered by the term 'recycled' (the ratio of U-235 to U-238 is lower than in fresh fuel), and the plutonium was never there in the first place, so it could hardly be said to be 'recycled'. So, while the paper refers to 'recycled uranium', it would be far more accurate to say 'recovered uranium'. One suspects that the reason why the WNA chooses to use the less accurate of the two is down to the fact that 'recycled' sounds more green than 'recovered'.

Furthermore, in addition to the recovered uranium and plutonium, there are other materials present in 'used' fuel that are effectively ignored by the term 'recycling', and it is surely no coincidence that those particular products are not the most endearing materials of the nuclear fuel cycle.

The term 'reprocessing' at least incorporates most aspects of the process it describes, so there is no reason to change it for a less accurate term - unless, of course, one is trying to spin things.

While it might only be a case of semantics to say that spent nuclear fuel is 'used', it is certainly stretching things to refer to reprocessing as 'recycling'. But to call nuclear power 'renewable', at best, invites ridicule.

Stephen Tarlton, Nuclear Engineering International, September 2007

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