China is coming to a crossroads as it hurriedly increases nuclear power production to cope with rising electricity demand and cut carbon emissions: Should it reprocess its nuclear waste or store it?
Nonproliferation advocates warn that recycling waste would generate weapons-usable plutonium, posing a security risk and potentially stirring a nuclear rivalry in East Asia.
A new Harvard University study, co-authored by a senior Chinese nuclear engineer, gives another reason against reprocessing – that it doesn’t make economic sense.
The study says China could save tens of billions of dollars by storing the spent fuel, and the savings could be spent on research and on building nuclear reactors.
It recommends postponing major investments in reprocessing and so-called “breeder” reactors that produce more plutonium than they consume.
“China has the luxury of time, as it has access to plenty of uranium to fuel its nuclear growth for decades to come, and dry casks can provide a safe, secure, and cost-effective way of managing spent fuel for decades to come, leaving all options open for the future,” the study says.
China has aimed for a “closed” nuclear cycle – recycling reactor fuel instead of using it just once and disposing of it – since the early 1980s.
The State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense told The Associated Press that remained China’s policy, to enhance its use of uranium resources and to cut production of nuclear waste.
But the numbers of countries that do reprocessing has dwindled, because of the high costs, technical difficulties involved and the growing availability of uranium on world markets.
While reprocessing reduces the level of radioactivity in nuclear waste, The Union of Concerned Scientists – an advocacy group that was founded by scientists and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – says it does not reduce the need for storage and secure disposal of waste.
Some within China’s own nuclear establishment are also questioning the merits of reprocessing as the nation mulls huge capital investments in the sector, US-based experts say.
One of the three authors of the Harvard study is Li Kang, who works within the China National Nuclear Corporation that oversees civilian and military nuclear programs.
The preface says Li’s contribution was primarily in making cost estimates based on China’s experience and that he should not be held responsible for arguments in other sections of the study – which, for example, highlight the costly experience of nations such as Japan in pursuing reprocessing.