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China Gains 3,000 Years of Nuclear Power, but What is Nuke Fuel Reprocessing?


The U.N. is gently pooh-poohing the news that China can now reprocess its own nuclear fuel, earning it a potential 3,000 year future of own-brand nuclear power. But exactly what is nuclear fuel reprocessing, and how does it benefit China?

Earlier in Jaunary, China's National Nuclear Corporation told the world that China had achieved something of a "breakthrough" in its nuclear program: It now had developed a fuel reprocessing technology so that it could extract useful bi-products from "spent" nuclear fuel. This gave China a massive extension to its future of nuclear power exploitation—it had been limited to between 50 and 70 years given the stores of uranium that China has naturally, but with reprocessing China could rely on its own resources for 3,000 years.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency's Nuclear Fuel has spoken out on the matter via the head of its Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Materials division—Gary Dyck. Using careful words, Dyck spoke to the press and noted that it's not quite as big news as you may think, despite the fact it puts China into a "fairly exclusive group." Dyck noted that China had been careful not to reveal its technology, it was probably based on the same aqueous recycling tech already used in nations like France. It could immediately improve the fuel use efficiency of light water reactors by 15%, and then a factor of 60 if it were combined with Fast Breeder reactors.

Nuclear power stations mainly rely on uranium as their fuel—it's packed into rods, and when these are slid into a reactor core in enough numbers (to achieve close to that famous "critical mass" figure) then reactions between the radioactive uranium atoms in all the fuel rods generate massive amounts of heat. This heat is extracted somehow (perhaps by pressurized water) and then used to power turbines to generate electricity. In the process some of the uranium in each cell is used up, and turned into a variety of "daughter" elements in the process of nuclear fission. When enough of the fuel has been converted, the rods are increasingly useless as they're not good for achieving the kind of fuel density needed to sustain a nuclear chain reaction, even though there's plenty of "good" uranium left in them. 

Hence the need for fuel "reprocessing." Initially the chemical tricks needed to extract useful fuel from the messy elemental goop inside nuclear fuel were used to gather plutonium for the early nuclear weapons program, but were expanded in time to include extraction of uranium and other elements to create new, viable fuel rods which can then go back into reactors. The trick of using fast breeder nuclear reactors was then invented, in which a conventional nuclear power station core is supplemented with cores of natural non-fissile (i.e. not "fuel) uranium-238. This uranium grabs neutrons pouring out of the good fuel cells, and converts into plutonium-239, which is a useful fuel...and the power station also puts out extra heat for generating electricity itself.

So what China's done, albeit on an experimental scale, is bought itself a very long future of independent nuclear power, just as the U.K., France, the U.S. and a handful of other nuclear nations have done. The U.N. has felt the need to play down the significance of this. This is no doubt partly to quell fears about what China may then choose to do to the rest of the world, given its new-found energy independence—which could upset the balance of global power production, and lead to increased innovation inside Chinese manufacturing plants (which are already the engines of the world, when it comes to much consumer electronics). It's also good news, in some senses, for the environment: Nuclear power doesn't contribute to global warming in the same way as carbon-fuel power stations do. There are a million other problems that environmentalists will worry about, but the innovation is still interesting. Add in the news that U.S. and Israeli facilities may have been instrumental in developing and testing the stuxnet virus that, by all reports, badly savaged Iran's ability to process any kind of nuclear material at all, and you realize that nuclear power is not going away, or going to disappear from the news headlines any time soon. 

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.