atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#378: Party like it's 1993. has this article about a "new" reactor--the "reactor of the future"--which will recycle spent fuel.


Wikipedia entry on the Integral Fast Reactor, cancelled by the Clinton Administration in 1994. (IFR for short.)

There is nothing new about recycling nuclear fuel. We did it before Carter outlawed it with an executive order in nineteen-fricking-seventy-seven.

The Yucca Mountain facility would be utterly unnecessary if we could just reprocess our spent nuclear fuel. IFR would have made nuclear power even safer than it is now, and it enjoys an enviable safety record: no commercial light water reactor has killed anyone; the biggest nuclear "disaster" in US history resulted in the release of 1,500 millirem of radiation, which doesn't even begin to match the exposure people routinely get from heart angiograms.

"Chernobyl"? I'll say it until the day I die: Chernobyl was deliberately mis-operated, and it was an outmoded design that nobody with any sense uses because the moderator could catch fire--and it was housed in a sheetmetal shed with no containment whatsoever. And at that, it killed much less than a hundred people. (Current tally is around 60 as I recall.)

Oh, for crying out loud, why bother? It's like shouting at the wind. No one cares that the whole "problem" of spent nuclear fuel is entirely political. No one cares that the entire issue could be solved with a "stroke of the pen" from the Oval Office.

The idea that terrorists might somehow get their hands on plutonium from such a site is ludicrous. "Hey, Achmed, go into that building and steal twenty kilograms of highly toxic and radioactive waste so we can build an atomic bomb!" They'd be dead the first time they opened the case, for crying out loud. You want to keep people from stealing the stuff? Just make sure it's inconvenient and dangerous. They won't go near it; and the ones that do won't breed and won't live long enough to do anything useful with the stuff they do steal.

Even if someone stole 20 kg of plutonium from such a facility, they would still have a mound of tasks to surmount before they could build a bomb:
  • Extract the plutonium
  • refine the plutonium
  • shape the plutonium
  • construct an implosion device
  • deliver the implosion device to the target
  • detonate the implosion device

...and do all that on a terrorist cell's budget without attracting the attention of the authorities. People who fear this don't understand what a herculean task this is.

The reason I so mercilessly make fun of the movie The Manhattan Project is because, really, it is just about impossible to build a reliable implosion device on a shoestring budget, particularly if you are not best buddies with a nuclear physicist. In that movie, the dumbass kid had a leg up on terrorists because he got his plutonium already extracted and refined, and isotopically pure.

People who are against the reprocessing of nuclear fuel focus on the plutonium because you can chemically extract it from the spent fuel--in fact, you must, if you wish to re-use the fuel rod. But plutonium from nuclear waste is going to consist of Pu-240 and Pu-238, not just Pu-239, which is the "weapons-grade" stuff. It would make a pretty poor bomb, assuming it didn't just go off on its own at assembly, or "fizzle" when it was detonated.

If the plutonium is mixed in with the other actinides which are extracted from spent fuel, it's going to be hot stuff. Forget carrying it home in a lead box; just transferring it to the lead box would expose you to a fatal dose of radiation. These isotopes are why spent fuel must "cool" for a year before anything can be done with it--they consist mainly of the short-half-life, high-radioactivity stuff that makes nuclear waste so dangerous. Once these isotopes are removed from the fuel, they take up very little room; and their radioactivity will drop below ambient levels after about 600-1,000 years.

Assuming we don't find a way to use them to generate power, long before that time is up....

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