On Monday, January 3, 2011, China Central Television announced that scientists and engineers at the China National Nuclear Corporation's No. 404 Factory, located in the Gobi desert in Gansu province, had demonstrated their mastery of nuclear fuel recycling technology that would allow them to improve fuel utilization by a factor of 60 over the current once-through fuel cycle they are using. This means that a resource base that was projected to last between 50-70 years would now have the potential to last 3000-4200 years. For a country full of people who think in terms of millennia, I assume that this was very good news indeed.
Despite the way that some media sources are reporting the news as a "breakthrough", it really is not news of any kind of scientific discovery or a previously unknown physical process. Though details about the specific technology that the Chinese have mastered are a bit murky based on the available English language sources, there is wide recognition among U.S. nuclear technology experts that a judicious combination of chemical or pyroprocessing techniques, fast reactors, certain kinds of thermal reactors, and careful material selection will enable fuel utilization gains on the order of the factor of 60 that the Chinese have announced.
There is more than one way to make this kind of improvement; one of the systems that would have demonstrated such a gain was the Integral Fast Reactor. As you can read in Chuck Till's story titled Plentiful Energy and the IFR Story, the United States had essentially demonstrated its own mastery of the necessary technology components by 1994. The team at the Argonne National Laboratory had developed adequate tools, developed the fuel forms, developed the reactor technology, developed the control systems, and were ready for a full-scale integrated production test when the project was abruptly "defunded".
The Chinese announcement indicates that it recognizes the importance of abundant sources of affordable energy. It is what enables future development. China has now completed enough steps of a technology development process similar to what Argonne scientists and engineers conducted that they are comfortable in announcing this accomplishment to the world.
Unlike the Argonne team, the technologists at No. 404 Factory have apparently been able to convince decision makers with a long view that steady efforts can address cost concerns associated with used fuel recycling. Decision makers that are familiar with manufacturing development will recognize that the processes of improvement are not fundamentally different from the ones associated with rare earth metal production, hard disk manufacturing, and producing large screen LCD television displays.
According to some news reports, the recycling development process in China has been underway for 20-25 years. My assumption is that the scientists involved have been actively attending international conferences and reading as much material as they can find in order to help improve their own creative efforts. This is not an area where there is a great need for originality or creativity; the required math, chemistry, and physics are reasonably straightforward.
Not surprisingly, some of the news reports provided discouraging quotes from people who have made a career out of trying to slow down fuel recycling technology. Here is a quote from an article published in R&D magazine's online edition titled China says it knows how to reprocess nuclear fuel.
To produce that amount of fuel, however, China would have to build a hugely expensive and highly dangerous breeder reactor, said Matthew Bunn, an expert on the Chinese nuclear program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Rather than build a breeder reactor or even start reprocessing on a commercial scale, China should simply store used fuel for the next several decades while safer and less expensive technology emerges, Bunn said.
"Reprocessing the spent fuel is much more dangerous," Bunn said, adding that it increased the risk of nuclear terrorism if recovered fuel were stolen.
I do not expect that the international nonproliferation community that has so effectively slowed or halted used fuel recycling efforts in the United States and other western nations will have much of an impact on China's decision to pursue continued process improvements and continued development of the kinds of hard spectrum reactors that enable achievement of that factor of 60 improvement in fuel use.
As supporting evidence for that assertion, I point to India's recent decision to refuse permission for the International Panel on Fissile Materials to hold a meeting in that country. Though Frank von Hipple, a prominent member of that group of international arms control and nonproliferation activists, expressed shock and incomprehension at the rejection, it was not such a surprising action.
Like China, India has a very large population of people who have never had access to energy intensive features of modern society that most of us take for granted. Refrigeration, air conditioning, clean drinking water, lights at night, readily accessible transportation, and many other features of first-world living have been completely unavailable. From that point of view, the idea that anyone would voluntarily walk away from a technology that could turn a 50-year fuel supply into a 3000-year fuel supply simply because it requires some investment and effort is incomprehensible. Vague and scary words like "non-proliferation" do not mean much in countries that demonstrated long ago that they knew enough about the atomic nucleus to produce weapons-if they so desire.
China's announcement will, I hope, have the beneficial effect of overcoming certain kinds of opposition to U.S. nuclear fuel recycling programs. We have developed and virtually abandoned various technologies with the potential to turn a world of energy scarcity into a world of emission-free energy abundance. We should take a page from the Chinese and determine that we will master and continually improve those techniques.
Borrowing words from some of the people that I correspond with on a regular basis on various e-mail lists, perhaps we will use this opportunity to inspire competitive actions that will stop the Chinese from "eating our lunch" because people with opposition agendas have purposely slowed our progress.
Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., and host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.