Achilles heel or own goal?

11 May 2004

Nuclear is certainly a very long-term business. A reactor planned today may be online within 5-10 years, then will run for 40 or maybe even 60 years. Just like a long distance runner, not a sprinter. Using this analogy, the profusion of new gas-fired generating plants are the sprinters, offering quick returns to investors for a ten-second dash. Our distance specialist requires a higher investment in terms of his preparation and conditioning, but may then produce a superior long-run return, blitzing the opposition. In the course of his race, however, our athlete will suffer many injuries – some he can shake off easily, some only with more difficulty.

We diligent nuclear advocates present our theories before sceptical audiences around the world. The economic demon is slain by colourful charts showing rising capacity factors (load factors), low fuel costs and high operating profits. On safety, we quote the industry’s tremendous safety record and then emphasise what a nuclear plant can do for an impoverished Chinese or Indian coastal town in terms of economic multiplier effects – it certainly beats fishing! Proliferation is being tackled quite effectively by international consensus and the United Nations. We think we’ve won them over, by eloquence matched by careful use of statistics, when she stands up – our deepest nightmare. “This is all very well,” she says, “but what about the waste?”

“Waste of what?” we reply, but immediately know she’s talking about spent nuclear fuel. And when we fail to quickly knock down her confident argument, she opines, “this is your Achilles heel,” to tacit nods of approval from most of those present.

Then the industry goes along with this assessment. “Yes, it’s our Achilles heel,” we agree amongst ourselves. “We must really do something to demonstrate that our industry has workable,

economic and environmentally acceptable solutions to this problem.” Indeed, we rather favour the language of the Achilles injury. Didn’t the industry train very hard, doing the best it could to win, but unfortunately suffered an unfortunate strain for no fault of its own? So it can’t race any more and deserves public sympathy with good wishes for our unfortunate plight.

Yet isn’t this complacent nonsense? Far from being the Achilles heel of the industry, this issue surely counts as its most spectacular own goal, scored by an industry prone to such defensive lapses. Yet this one takes top prize! The nuclear defender, making a wild lunge at an innocuous shot, succeeds only in knocking the ball through the legs of his bemused goalkeeper. Cue chants of “1-0 to the Greens,” from the away fans, the above lady amongst them, accompanied with bye-bye waves to the nuclear team’s fans as they depart the stadium in droves.

In fact, the industry’s team was beforehand largely on the attack against the struggling Greens. It had possession of spent nuclear fuel near the Green’s goal, but then somehow the spent fuel was suddenly recategorised as waste. Possession went to the Greens who scarcely gave it back, before instigating the spectacular farce at the other end.

The problem for the industry’s side was quite simple. Once it became recategorised as waste, the opposition began to make mincemeat out of the industry’s spokespersons and the match was effectively over. If it’s waste, something has to be done about it and quickly too. After all, it’s a huge liability, dangerous too. Certainly not an asset.

No longer destined to be stored and then possibly recycled as fresh reactor fuel, it becomes a big problem. It cannot possibly be handed onto the next generation to deal with. But then we contradict ourselves by saying: “Well actually, the volume is quite small, no more than the magnitude of the football pitch itself, so don’t worry too much, it’s not a problem at all.” Then arguments are adduced that the industry has workable solutions to the problem but just needs the time and money to demonstrate these ‘final disposal’ repositories.


The public finds the once through nuclear fuel cycle with deep repositories difficult to accept. If the stuff has to be put so far below ground, it must be really nasty

But then it’s uncertain whether the material may yet have some economic value in the future, so we build in the concept of retrievability. But what’s the point in spending billions of dollars putting this stuff down a hole in the ground when you’re maybe going to bring it back to the surface again? What if reclassification makes it no longer a waste repository but a deep plutonium mine as radioactive decay gets underway? What a dog’s dinner of confusion!

What should the industry have done differently and how can it possibly rescue its bad position on this issue today? The first point is much more care over the use of language. Never, ever admit what you have is ‘waste’ until you are absolutely certain that it doesn’t have (and never will have) any economic value. Rather like the fossil fuel guys denying that they’re leading the world towards environmental meltdown through carbon-induced global warming. Don’t admit it unless you really have to – make the opposition fight for their victory. Perhaps this is not a completely morally defensible position, but it makes sound business sense. Indeed, the worst example (which has ensured continued high profits) is the tobacco companies refusing to accept that their product is linked with lung cancer. But we’re certainly not as bad as that!

The second point is that the public finds the once through cycle with deep repositories difficult to accept. They reason that if the stuff has to be put so far below ground, it must be really nasty and therefore is not something we want to pass onto future generations. It is not really final disposal – the problem essentially remains. Hence the long-running saga over Yucca Mountain in the USA. The industry should certainly be demonstrating that such repositories are technically feasible, but it is debatable that they are needed now. Long-term storage on the surface, until the question of whether the spent fuel is an asset or liability, is a far better option.

Yet in the early days of nuclear power, back in the 1960s and 70s, it was believed that uranium scarcity would necessitate reprocessing of spent fuel and recycling in whatever form, eventually in fast reactors. This doesn’t avoid the need for repositories but because there is a coherent spent fuel management policy, the industry’s position on public acceptance is far better. As it has turned out, the combination of rapid uranium resource development and the slowing reactor programmes has meant that only a few countries, notably France, Japan, India and Russia, have remained attached to the recycling model (yet with fast reactors now in the even more distant future). This may have looked foolish from the economic standpoint when uranium prices were low, but looks more sensible now the market has tightened (see last month’s article – NEI April 2004, p12). Inventories of reprocessed uranium which looked like a liability at $10 per pound become significant assets at $20.

Recycling spent fuel also fits in with the concept of sustainable development, in that the maximum value is extracted from the mined material. It is true that the current Purex reprocessing technology is less than satisfactory. Environmentally dirty, it produces significant quantities of lower level wastes. But the policy of not rushing into repositories, storing spent fuel long-term and probably reprocessing it at some stage in the future looks the right one from all standpoints. The adduced greater proliferation risk has been brought up as a downside, but is really nonsensical. Terrorists or rogue states can do little with materials from these stages of the fuel cycle.

So what can the industry do in the future to get out of this mess? I would say four things. Number one, don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know whether spent fuel will be an asset or liability, as you can’t be certain what future nuclear fuel markets will look like or how technology will shift. Try to sell the idea of long-term

surface storage to the public on the basis that you are passing a potential asset onto the next generation, not a certain liability. Secondly, continue to investigate and demonstrate the technical merit of deep repositories as, whatever occurs, some of these are going to be needed in the future. Thirdly, look positively at the concept of international repositories. There are significant regulatory (and perhaps public acceptability) problems with these, but the idea of each nuclear country having its own looks ludicrous from several angles. Finally, actively pursue research in improved reprocessing technology, which should take place at a limited number of safeguarded sites around the world (as has also been suggested for enrichment facilities). The world could well be short of nuclear fuel in the coming decades, as was originally predicted, so this option must be investigated.

Above all else, don’t say it is waste until you are sure about this and don’t be afraid in the meantime to admit you don’t have perfect foresight about the future.

Author Info:

Steve Kidd is Head of Strategy & Research at the World Nuclear Association, where he has worked since 1995 (when it was the Uranium Institute). Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the World Nuclear Association and/or its members.

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