KAKUJOHO (Nuclear Information)



May 15, 2005


Japanese ZEN approach to the economics of reprocessing

Japan understands that reprocessing is currently uneconomical,given the low price of uranium. But Japan says that it wants to separate 8 tons of plutonium (equivalent to over 1000 bombs) per year, because it is worried about future uranium price increases. If this is true, why not purchase a large amount of uranium now as strategic reserve? Japan’s response: That would be too selfish because this precious resource (uranium) should be shared by all humanity.

Did you get it?

If so, you are already a ZEN master. Apply for a job at the Japan Atomic Energy Commission. (By the way, you could also apply for a job at the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization as such a loving person. The reason that the oil-rich country of Iran is so interested in nuclear development seems to be that it wants to share its oil with all humanity by relying on nuclear power for its own energy needs.)

If not, you have a lot to learn. Ask the Japanese Ambassador for explanation.

Question: Which is more loving, Japan or Iran?

Even if the plutonium were free, it would still be more expensive to fabricate Mixed OXide (MOX) fuel using a mixture of that plutonium and uranium, than to fabricate Low Enriched Uranium fuel using purchased LEU material, because of the costs associated with handling the more radioactive plutonium during the fabrication process.

The New Nuclear Policy-Planning Council of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission writes in its 12 November 2004 interim report:

“At current uranium prices and with the current level of technological knowledge, scenario 1 [reprocessing all the spent fuel] is the least 'economic' of the scenarios. However, (1) from the point of view of 'energy security (stability of supply, resource conservation)', it has the effect of reducing the amount of uranium required by between 10% and 20%;*

Professor Steve Fetter at School of Public Affairs, University of Maryland, a more earthly person, says:

"Reprocessing does save some uranium, but at an extremely high cost. With Rokkasho, the cost of the saved uranium is perhaps forty times the current market price uranium."

* The Japan Atomic Energy Commission report continues:

[There was expressed] the view that, at a stage when the fast breeder has not been implemented, in pursuing a method of achieving the effect of uranium conservation, a comprehensive assessment should consider, in addition to reprocessing, reducing the concentration of the tailings (the uranium left after the process of enriching natural uranium). It has been pointed out that this would have the same uranium conservation effect as reprocessing, but at a reduced cost.

Let’s look at the following figures.

Cost of fuel per kg

Low Enriched Uranium fuel $1200/kg
LEU preparation $950
 Natural uranium$400 *
 Conversion to gaseous form $ 50
Fuel fabrication $250

*assuming 8.5kg of natural uranium at $45/kgU is used to produce 1kg of low enriched uranium

MOX fuelover $5500/kg
Fuel fabrication$1500

(The fuel fabrication at the MOX plant to be built at Rokkasho could be more costly)

Professor Fetter explains:

“Fresh LEU fuel costs about $1200 per kilogram. This includes the cost of natural uranium ($400), conversion of the natural uranium to uranium hexafluoride ($50), enrichment of the uranium hexafluoride ($500), and fabrication of fuel assemblies ($250).

For comparison, the fabrication cost alone for MOX is about $1500 per kilogram. The fabrication of MOX much more expensive than LEU fabrication because Pu poses large health hazards to workers, thus requiring remote handling equipment.

So even if the Pu is free, MOX costs more than LEU.

But Pu is not free. The operation of the Thorp reprocessing plant [Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant in Sellafield, UK] is estimated to cost $700/kgHM (if the plant operates at full capacity; more otherwise). The reprocessing of 1 kilogram of fuel yields about 10 grams of Pu, so reprocessing operations costs amount to about $70 per gram of Pu recovered. A kilogram of MOX requires about 60 grams of Pu, so reprocessing adds about $4000/kg to the cost of MOX.

Note that this does not include the capital cost of the plant (which, in the case of Rokkasho, is a "sunk" cost), interest on the capital, decommissioning, or waste disposal. When all these things are added, the cost of reprocessing at Rokkasho is greater than $4000/kg, making MOX even less economical.

One offsetting factor is that the disposal of reprocessing wastes may be less expensive than the disposal of spent LEU fuel. But the disposal of spent LEU fuel is estimated to cost $400/kg in the United States. Even if reprocessing cut waste disposal costs in half, this savings would not begin to offset the greater costs of MOX.”

*For more information on the Rokkasho reprocessing plant:

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