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This will be a largely technical diary that will be devoid of my usual "cute stuff."

In a rather large victory in the battle against global climate change, Japan has produced its first MOX (Mixed Oxide Powder) from spent nuclear fuel.   For those who are not familiar with what MOX fuel it is, it is a type of nuclear fuel that contains plutonium produced in commercial nuclear reactors.

Japan has previously recycled its spent nuclear fuel in France's La Hague and at the Sellafield plant in the UK, as part of the Japanese commitment to derive the maximum benefit from it's uranium.  (There was a huge stir about forged documents at Sellafield involving Japanese fuel.)

The Japanese plant offers some rather interesting features that have not been commercially practiced before.   The most interesting is the recovery of the uranium as well as the plutonium from its spent fuel.

As it happens, the vast majority of the material is so called "nuclear waste" is unfissioned uranium, which represents about 95% of the mass of the spent fuel.   In other recycling strategies, this uranium is generally not recycled, but is stored for "later use."

The main reason for the choice to not use uranium that has passed through a reactor one time involves reactor physics.   Once it has been through a reactor one time, the uranium is not exactly like the uranium produced in an enrichment plant.   Typically the uranium produced in an enrichment plant is a mixture of the three naturally occurring isotopes of uranium, U-238, U-235, and U-234.   The uranium fuel found in a nuclear reactor is typically enriched in the latter two isotopes.   After irradiation of periods approaching two years, the uranium removed from the reactor contains a fourth isotope, uranium-236, which does not occur on earth in significant quantities.   U-236 is a "neutron poison" or "neutron sink" that involves special considerations in reactor operations.  

However U-236 offers very profound non-proliferation value, since its effect is to make any plutonium found in the reactor effectively useless for use in nuclear weapons.

The Japanese plant is superior to any previous nuclear fuel recycling plant because it never isolates pure plutonium, reactor grade or otherwise.   This is a wonderful approach that accomplishes several things in one fell swoop.   1) It extends nuclear resources and reduces the need for additional uranium mining.  2) It greatly reduces the volume and mass of so called "nuclear waste."  3)  It severely limits access to pure plutonium of any grade.   4)  It assures that any plutonium that exists will generate significant decay heat and considerable radiation, making the unlikely diversion of the fuel to weapons - already a tiny risk - even more unlikely and far more problematic.

I knew this plant was coming on line, but I had no idea that it had a far superior process to the highly successful La Hague plant in France, and the somewhat less successful Sellafield plant in the UK.

I'm very, very, very impressed.

Japan has been making some rather remarkable strides in the field of nuclear energy.   In Japan as elsewhere, the nuclear industry has been subject to a lot of criticism from people who actually know zero about the subject - Greenpeace and similar types - but, nevertheless, the Japanese have largely shrugged off these appeals to ignorance and continued to expand their nuclear capability.

Because of regulatory laxness, Japan will have some distance to travel before they are on the same level as France, France being the nuclear standard to which all other nations should aspire, but let me tell you, I have been waiting some time to see the approach that the new fuel recycling plant will be taking.   This is state of the art, a very, very, very good piece of news in an increasingly troubled time.

Japan produces mixed oxide powder.

The plant will have the capacity to recycle 800 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel per year, about 80% of all the fuel generated in Japan.

By clicking on the link above, one can see the building that holds all of the spent fuel produced per year in Japan.   This building is relatively small, as one can see, and it readily accentuates why nuclear power has far lower external costs than any other form continuous of energy available on an exajoule scale.   Nuclear energy is the only form of energy which produces "wastes" that can easily be contained in a small volume.    I would submit that a single coal plant that had 1/1000 th the amount of energy output that this plant represents would have a waste heap that would dwarf this building.

To repeat:  I am very, very, very impressed.

Originally posted to NNadir on Sat Feb 17, 2007 at 06:34 PM PST.


If you have ever read a NNadir diary:

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Comment Preferences

    •  Mix Tc with asphalt so you don't need to plow (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      the roads in the wintertime!!!!

      Happy little moron, lucky little man. I wish I was a moron, my God, perhaps I am! -- Spike Milligan

      by polecat on Sat Feb 17, 2007 at 06:58:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Technetium doesn't produce much heat. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        polecat, norahc, Remembering Jello

        Even if it did produce heat, there isn't very much of it, less than 80 tons on the entire planet.   This might keep a supermarket parking lot melted, but not much more.

        •  I'm be very surprised if the total is as much as (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          80 tons.  NFIN (Not Found In Nature).

          But I bet I made you smile!

          Happy little moron, lucky little man. I wish I was a moron, my God, perhaps I am! -- Spike Milligan

          by polecat on Sat Feb 17, 2007 at 07:33:53 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  As of 1994, the world supply of technetium was (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            kurt, norahc, Quinton, Remembering Jello

            estimated at 78 MT.

            It is sad to say that a considerable amount of this technetium ended up in the ocean.  It really breaks my heart, because technetium is a very interesting metal with properties that make it potentially extremely valuable.

            The world supply of technetium already exceeds the world supply of rhenium which has important value as a catalyst.   Thus the substitution of technetium for the less available (naturally occurring element) rhenium may be possible in many instances.

            I will, in fact, discuss technetium's potential value in a future diary.

            Technetium is already widely used as a diagnostic imaging agent and as a therapeutic agent.   Many related medical uses are under development.  People deliberately eat technetium all the time.    

            Previously I wrote that technetium used for medical purposes was not actually a fission product, but was made in accelerators from Mo-98.   This is actually not true as I discovered in more recent literature.   Tc-99m, the nuclear isomer most used in medicine is made from Tc-99 produced in fission reactors.

            •   (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              I will, in fact, discuss technetium's potential value in a future diary.

              When, NNadir, When?

              My exposure to these matters has mostly been through your diaries.

              I am apprehensive, at this point, to   google technetium, as I fear that it may all be a snipe hunt.

              No, not really.

              I've just done it. But the wiki on it is a little past my ken.

              Thanks for writing these.

              ( and for getting to technetium)

              •  I don't know when I will write my diaries. (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                kurt, Remembering Jello

                Generally they fall out me when I have insomnia.  I write 'em, edit them over a period of days, and sometimes need to review references to see if I have recalled things correctly, since much of what I write comes off the top of my head.

                I publish them when they seem reasonably OK, but sometimes I have to go back to fix bad grammar, typos or other problems.

                The current diary, which was not as much fun for me as my other diaries, took me just a few minutes, because I wasn't playing around but was doing straight reporting of something I saw on a nuclear website I was visiting.  

                Google is your friend.  If you are interested in the issues I raise, you can certainly learn a lot by looking into things beyond what I say, since my diaries are necessarily limited in scope and are filtered through the prism of my opinions.  I think it's a good idea to think critically about what I, as well as those who disagree with me, say.   I google quite a bit myself.   Sometimes this leads me to places like the Greenpeace website but it also leads to places where I learn quite a bit.

                I have just googled my way to the Wikipedia reference on technetium.   It is excellent, I think, but it hardly says all there is to say about this very interesting metal.   The discussion of why there is no stable isotopes of technetium is a bit circular, but it gives a good general idea of the issues surrounding nuclear stability.

                Googling "technetium" will produce lots of technical papers about medical applications.   It may be easier to just wait for me to sort through that stuff for you, but please don't feel compelled to wait for me.   I can be rather slow.  

    •  Simply Put, Brilliant Diary (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      polecat, NNadir

      politics of contrast, kossacks!

      (-7.88, -6.10) "Susan Collins is worse than garlic breath and stinky old socks together" me, out of context

      by Nulwee on Sat Feb 17, 2007 at 07:12:28 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wow! (4+ / 0-)

    This is great news! I didn't realize that the Japanese were so far advanced. Do you think that there's any chance that this technology can be used to enhance the carrot side of the NPT?

    •  Japan, being the only victim of nuclear war, (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kurt, Quinton, Remembering Jello

      has a very serious commitment to nuclear weapons non-proliferation.

      The new plant is under inspection by the IAEA.

      It is immediately clear to me that this technology could have important technical benefits for non-proliferation, especially because uranium fuel with a significant portion of U-236 cannot be enriched to weapons grade.

      However one will always be able to enrich virgin uranium to weapons grade.   Therefore all enrichment faciiities in my view should be under international control.

      It is theoretically possible to eliminate the need for enrichment at all for nuclear power.   This would probably require the incorporation of the thorium fuel cycle to accomplish however.

      •  I assume that this (0+ / 0-)

        "uranium fuel with a significant portion of U-236 cannot be enriched to weapons grade"  really means "it is very difficult to enrich to weapons grade, with current technology you'd be better off starting with natural uranium"  True or false?

  •  Thanks, I really enjoy these diaries and learn a (0+ / 0-)

    bit also.  I liked the mercury comment in your last diary, but would like to learn more about the Technetium.  Wikipedia could work but its not nearly as well done as your articles.

    trying to thing of something new - watch here for results

    by norahc on Sat Feb 17, 2007 at 07:05:32 PM PST

  •  The link doen't lead me (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NNadir, Quinton

    to any link which provide an image.

    By clicking on the link above, one can see the building that holds all of the spent fuel produced per year in Japan.

  •  Japanese MOX Plant (0+ / 0-)

    Is the plant reprocessing spent fuel to MOX now?  What's the level of coolant needed?  How much low level waste and what kinds?

    Thanks for the clear and informative diary.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

    by gmoke on Sat Feb 17, 2007 at 09:10:00 PM PST

    •  The plant is recycling spent fuel now. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kurt, Quinton

      It is almost certainly not at full capacity and is apparently in a "shake down" mode.

      I do not know the technical details for the coolant flow rates, but given that the fuel is spent the cooling is not comparable to what is in a reactor, since under those circumstances it would still be in the reactor generating steam to drive the turbines.

      This is a new plant.   It is almost certainly robotic and designed to minimize direct handling.  This would suggest that the low level waste represented by things like gloves is probably minimized.

      I am not familiar with the technical process details, but I can say this:   The "nitrate" reference in the procedure name indicates that this is wet chemistry based on nitric acid dissolution fuel.   Thus it is most likely a close analog to the "PUREX" process at La Hague with some improvements that cause plutonium to be carried with uranium.

      While I am satisfied that the plant represents a huge improvement - simply because it recovers uranium for direct reuse in the MOX - I also strongly suspect that PUREX chemistry is not the ideal processing scheme forever.   Invariably it involves solvents and extractants, both of which probably end up as some low level waste, even with solvent recycling.

      I believe that electrorefining methods and/or molten salt extractions will ultimately be preferable to wet chemistry, simply because such methods minimize the need for solvents.   However none of these methods have been commercially demonstrated.

      •  Thanks, NNadir (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        This is interesting news, and I am sure you will keep us in the loop as the plant leaves shakedown mode.

        You hint towards the end that you think yet another process will end up being even better, that also sounds like good news.

        I have a slightly off-topic question to ask you. Did you see the Dr. Bussard Google Video concerning some new kind of confinement fusion?

        If not, I'll find the link for you. If yes, what do you think of it? If there existed a new fusion process and a clean or cleaner fission process, which would be better for the earth? Or should we pursue both?



        "There is a time for compromise, and it is called 'Later'!"

        by LeftyLimblog on Sat Feb 17, 2007 at 10:54:05 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm not much of a fusion guy. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Fusion has not generated a single watt of grid power.

          If it does someday, it will still depend on access to tritium.   Because the fusion reaction produces one neutron, and because of other technical considerations, I really don't see how fusion could work without a fission infrastructure to support it.

          The world supply of tritium right now is about 18 kg.  It has been accumulated over many years, decades really, as a side product from CANDU operations.  Most of it remains in Canada.  A 500 MW fusion reactor would consume, as I understand it, all of that tritium in about 6 months.

          If you produce the link, though, I'll look at it.   I haven't seen it.

      •  We need 3 of these plants in US (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Ray Radlein, ormondotvos

        You say the Japanese MOX plant can recyle 800 MT/yr.  The 103 US reactors produce about 2,000 MT/yr of spent fuel.  So we would only need 3 Japanese-style plants to undo the annual US production of spent nuclear fuel.

        You probably have mentioned thorium fuel in one of your diaries.  There is some promising research going on in Russia in this regard.  Thorium is three times more abundant than uranium.  It does not make plutonium as a byproduct--in fact thorium can "burn up" plutonium in a reactor.  That would take care of concern about proliferation.  Also the waste is said to be much smaller in volume.

        Advocates of the thorium fuel cycle say it would be better than MOX.  What do you think?

        "Well, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in." --General Jack Turgidson

        by Plan9 on Sun Feb 18, 2007 at 10:46:41 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  The thorium fuel cycle has a great deal to (5+ / 0-)

          recommend it.

          I will probably write about it in a future diary.

          The thorium fuel cycle was used in the very first commercial reactor to operate in the United States, the Shippingport reactor.

          It is possible to use the thorium cycle to acheive thermal breeding with CANDU type reactors.   It is also possible to incorporate this cycle to reduce plutonium inventories by much greater amounts than is possible with MOX.

          The thorium fuel cycle does require, because of a side reaction that produces U-232 resulting in certain daughters, particularly Thallium-208, that have high gamma outputs.   Thus thorium based fuels will require remote handling.   In the age of robotics this is somewhat less of a problem than in former times.

          Thorium is only more plentiful than uranium if you consider ore bodies.   It cannot be recovered from seawater and therefore may not be as large a resource as uranium.

          Ideally in my view, the important advantages of thorium fuel cycles will be further commercialized, but they will be integrated with MOX.   To fully exploit uranium it must be converted to plutonium.   This can be done safely I think, but we need to do so with careful balance of risks and benefits.

  •  Interesting diary (0+ / 0-)

    It's always interesting to read about a subject that I had no previous knowledge of- thanks!

    "Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind." John F. Kennedy

    by vcmvo2 on Sun Feb 18, 2007 at 08:53:41 PM PST

  •  Even enviro Stewart Brand believes (0+ / 0-)

    ... that nuclear power needs to be re-investigated. He appeared recently with Jared Diamond ("Guns, Germs, Steel" & "Collapse"), and mentioned that all options need to be open when it comes to future energy sources.
    For my part, I prefer lower tech and less messy Geothermal energy.  It can be used anywhere in the US, and doesn't depend on completely centralized, high tech radioactivity to merely 'boil water' to turn a turbine.
     And there's the waste thing, too.
     Damned shame there's no 'Geothermal Lobby'.

    "If the Nuremberg laws were applied, every post WWII US President would have been hanged." =Chomsky

    by abenjaminc on Sun Feb 18, 2007 at 09:10:13 PM PST

    •  How do you propose (0+ / 0-)

      we "boil" the water? I have read of injection schemes where water is injected into deep strata with a high thermal gradient--is this what you are talking about?

      "Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes." Maggie Kuhn -6.75/-7.54

      by crose on Sun Feb 18, 2007 at 09:35:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm far from an expert on geothermal.. (0+ / 0-)

        There was an excellent diary on this topic about a week and a half ago.  I read it, and immediately forgot most of it, since I hadn't considered geothermal, and wasn't familiar with most of it.
         It required drilling - quite deeply - in the range of 4 to six miles.... less if geology permitted ... to produce enough hot water to heat homes, and power steam turbines at the surface.  It was quite an interesting diary.

        "If the Nuremberg laws were applied, every post WWII US President would have been hanged." =Chomsky

        by abenjaminc on Mon Feb 19, 2007 at 09:43:13 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  This offers up ... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ray Radlein, NNadir

    some interesting opportunities in regards to non-proliferation concerns ... hmmm ... interesting.

    Blogging regularly at Ecotality Blog for a Sustainable Future.

    by A Siegel on Sun Feb 18, 2007 at 09:12:27 PM PST

  •  For some different (less rosy) views (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ray Radlein, LeftOverAmerica

    on the MOX reactor at Rokkasho, Japan, see this site. Of course, this kind of accident   at Tokaimura fuel processing plant in September 1999 does not inspire confidence.

    •  To clarify, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ray Radlein

      the Tokaimura fuel processing plant was operated by Japan Nuclear Fuel Conversion (JCO), not the same company as the one running the Rokkasho MOX plant, Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited.

    •  What is amusing is that the deaths of 200,000 (0+ / 0-)

      (+/- 50,000) Chinese in the 1975 Banqiao dam disaster in 1975 produces far less comment than the criticality accident at Tokaimura.  (The accident destroyed nearly 6,000,000 buildings.)

      Doesn't inspire confidence in hydroelectric energy.

      In fact, the Tokaimura criticality accident, which killed four people, is hardly the only energy refining accident on the planet.

      The BP refinery explosion in Texas City, Texas just about 2 years ago killed 15 fatalaties and 100 injuries.   I wish that people would be arguing that fossil fuels are "too dangerous" as a result of this accident, but people just blow off anything concerned with fossil fuels, refinery explosions, deaths from air pollution, mining deaths, climate change related death, etc, etc, etc.

      Mostly the issues with nuclear energy consist wholly of selective attention and a deliberate inability to compare.

  •  further kudos. (0+ / 0-)

    Thank you for another interesting, and possibly useful, diary.

    Listen Before You Talk.

    by ormondotvos on Sun Feb 18, 2007 at 11:58:33 PM PST

  •  I'm sorry I missed this great diary (0+ / 0-)

    with great news in it! too late to recommend it.  But I do, most highly.

    It's no wonder the Japanese support nuclear technology.  

    1.  They have no oil and coal to speak of.
    1.  Therefore they have no oil and coal lobbyists to speak of.
    1.  They can visit Hiroshima, which has more people living in it than it did before WWII, and are more aware than we are in this country, that the residents of Hiroshima have a similar lifespan to the rest of the Japanese population, which exceeds the average lifespan of Americans.

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