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China reports it can reprocess atomic fuel

Breakthrough could expand its energy supplies

By Christopher Bodeen
Associated Press / January 4, 2011

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BEIJING — Chinese scientists have mastered the technology for reprocessing fuel from nuclear power plants, potentially boosting the supplies of carbon-free electricity to keep the country’s economy booming, state television reported yesterday.

The breakthrough will extend by many times the amount of power that can be generated from China’s nuclear plants as fissile and fertile materials are recovered to be new fuel, CCTV said.

Several European countries, Russia, India and Japan already reprocess nuclear fuel to separate and recover the unused uranium and plutonium, reduce waste, and safely close the nuclear cycle.

The CCTV report gave no details on whether or when China would begin reprocessing on an industrial scale.

China overtook the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer in 2009, years before it was expected to do so, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

But it is heavily dependent on coal, a major pollutant. It has 13 nuclear power plants in use now and ambitiously plans to add potentially hundreds more.

Reprocessing nuclear fuel costs significantly more than using it once and storing it as waste. It is also controversial because extracted plutonium can be used in nuclear weapons.

Both recovered plutonium and — when prices are high — uranium can be reused. Some reactors can use other reprocessed components, potentially multiplying the amount of energy that results from the original uranium fuel by about 60 times.

Wang Junfeng, project director for the state-run China National Nuclear Corporation, told CCTV the Chinese scientists employed a chemical process that was effective and safe.

“In this last experiment, we made a preparation of standard quality uranium products and standard quality plutonium products, so we can say we were successful,’’ Wang said.

CCTV said the country has enough fuel now to last up to 70 years and the breakthrough could yield enough to last 3,000 years.

To produce that amount of fuel, however, China would have to build a hugely expensive and highly dangerous breeder reactor, said Mathew Bunn, an expert on the Chinese nuclear program at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

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.

CCTV says the details of the process the Chinese scientists developed after 20 years’ work are being kept secret.

The technologies used in other countries also are considered industrial secrets and generally not shared.

Bunn said China built a pilot-scale reprocessing plant several years ago but repeatedly postponed using it, possibly because of technical problems. “My interpretation of this statement is that they have resolved whatever issues were delaying that,’’ he said.

China’s total 2009 energy consumption, including sources ranging from oil and coal to wind and solar power, was equal to 2.265 billion tons of oil, compared with 2.169 billion tons used by the US, the IEA said.

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