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'Reducing the hazard'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

When the phrase “reducing the hazard” is used, usually it means reprocessing and/or transmutation.

However: Transmutation does not eliminate the need for a repository for high-level waste and spent fuel!

First, no transmutation scheme is able to deal with all of the radionuclides of concern since many cannot be transmuted for practical purposes. Second, transmutation of Technetium-99 and Iodine-129 is not 100% effective, even with multiple passes through the reactor, and new long-lived fission products are created from the fission of the actinides. Third, fissioning of the actinides is not 100% effective. The composition of the residual transuranic waste would be shifted towards higher isotope actinides and the waste would thus be more radioactive. This would pose greater radiological risks and complicate disposal. Finally, since cesium-137 will be disposed of in the repository with cesium-135, the large amount of heat generated by it would mean that the space requirements for disposal could be considerable.

Transmutation, even in the context of a phase-out of nuclear power, would also require decades to implement and possibly centuries to complete. This may require institutional control over the waste for time periods much longer than is feasible or desirable.

Implications of Transmutation

Proliferation. All transmutation schemes require reprocessing of transuranic radionuclides. While these schemes may not yield materials attractive to weapons designers in nuclear weapons states, they can be used to make nuclear weapons and would pose significant proliferation risks in that non-state groups or non-weapons states might seek to acquire and use them. Even the reprocessing methods that are labeled as proliferation resistant, such as pyroprocessing, can be easily modified to allow for the extraction of plutonium pure enough to make weapons. These types of facilities may in fact increase proliferation risks due to their compact size and potential problems in developing adequate safeguards. Furthermore, promotion of transmutation as a waste management tool may result in the widespread transfer of this technology.

Environment and Health. Reprocessing, which is required by all transmutation schemes, is one the most damaging components of the fuel cycle. It results in large volumes of waste and radioactive emissions to air and water. Its health impacts on workers, off-site residents, and even far away populations are well documented. Because fuel fabrication does not involve the production of liquid waste, its effects are mainly restricted to workers and are on the same order as for workers in the reprocessing sector. The increased radiological risk of handling fuel that has been repeatedly irradiated is cause for serious concern. Finally, the increased transportation of high level waste required under a number of transmutation schemes would increase the probability of a transportation accident with its attendant effects.

Reactor Safety. Transmutation would require the development and implementation of new reactor technologies and/or the expanded use of existing reactors. Some of these new reactors have been described as "inherently safe." However, increases in certain safety features, in comparison with existing reactors, is countered by decreases in other safety features and the creation of new safety problems unique to the new reactor designs. For example, some feedback effects that help prevent a runaway reaction in existing reactors do not exist in some transmutation reactors.

Cost. The cost of transmutation, particularly for the advanced schemes that would be required in order to have significant reduction of actinides, is prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, while electricity would be produced to offset these costs, it is highly unlikely that these revenues will be sufficient. Transmutation would likely require tens of billions of dollars to develop, and additional large subsidies even during operations, when electric power sales are expected to generate some revenue.

Continuation of Nuclear Power. Transmutation is not only considered in the context of managing the waste from the current generation of nuclear reactors (i.e. as part of a phase-out of nuclear power). Most transmutation schemes, particularly in Europe and Japan, assume an indefinite continuation of nuclear power, with transmutation as one part of a new nuclear fuel cycle. By supposedly solving some of the current problems with nuclear power, transmutation is seen by some as essential to ensuring the continued growth of nuclear power.


Source: "The Nuclear Alchemy Gamble: An Assessment of Transmutation as a Nuclear Waste Management Strategy", IEER, available at: