published by WISE News Communique on December 4, 1998

Partitioning and transmutation: A hype

The Dutch Energy Research Foundation (ECN) in Petten organized a workshop on transmutation of nuclear waste on November 13, 1998. The researchers claimed that results are so favorable that further reprocessing and vitrification of nuclear waste better be stopped: if nuclear waste has been reprocessed and vitrified, transmutation is not possible any longer.

(503.4965) WISE Amsterdam -By transmutation of long-lived radio- isotopes, the ECN researchers claim, it is technically possible to shorten the period of storage to 1,000 years instead of the present 250,000 to 1 million year. If these results are realized in practice, they remark, public acceptance of future nuclear energy would be better. The large inventories of separated civil and military plutonium, more than 250,000 kg worldwide, could also be eliminated by transmutation. Too good to be true?

What is P&T?
Since some decades now, it is claimed by some nuclear researchers that Partitioning and Transmutation (P&T) is the solution for the problem of the storage of nuclear wastes. With successful P&T, this storage period could be brought down to 1,000 or even to 250 years, it is claimed. Partitioning is just another word for reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Transmutation is changing long-lived nuclides into other nuclides through irradiation with neutrons.

The ECN is doing research on partitioning and transmutation since about 1988. An actinide laboratory was built for ƒl 2 million (US$1.1 million). The present program, called Recycling of Actinides & Fission Products (RAS), is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs with ƒl 5.85 million (US$3.21 million) and the European Union (EU). The ECN cooperates mainly with French transmutation researchers. In Marcoule, France, new reprocessing technologies are being developed to separate all important actinides and long-lived fission products from spent fuel.
Two groups of radio-isotopes, ECN says, must undergo P&T: Actinides are formed by neutron irradiation of uranium-238. The group includes plutonium (which is the major actinide) and the minor actinides: neptunium, americium and curium. Spent fuel contains ± 1% plutonium and ± 0.1% minor actinides. Fission products represent about 3.4% of spent fuel. The rest (95.5%) are uranium isotopes, mainly uranium-238.
ECN concentrates on life-reduction of actinides. They have experimented with transmutation of americium-241, which seems to be a very cunning choice. Their result: "transmutation of 35% of americium-241 in a uranium-free fuel by `fast neutron' irradiation". It all sounds optimistic, but is it true?

Does it work?
No, and for a number of reasons.
Spent fuel and reprocessed materials, including plutonium, have to be transported worldwide which endangers people along the routes and has proliferation problems.
The researchers at the ECN admit their research is only directed on the future: to enable expansion of nuclear energy later on. It has no relevance whatsoever for present-day nuclear energy problems. Their claim that transmutation is the solution for the nuclear waste problem is unfounded and sounds like mere fraud.
Their attitude is to get more money for further research.
All over the world, more and more money is spent on transmutation research: mainly in the US, France, Japan.
P&T research began over 20 years ago and many more decades of research is needed, researchers admit. The nuclear lobby presents it as the final nuclear waste solution which would bring about public acceptance of nuclear energy. But even experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are critical.

Drawing conclusions on partitioning & transmutation is easy: Partitioning and transmutation is not and cannot be a solution for nuclear waste problems. Therefore all money spent on it is spilled: funding and research should be stopped by the Netherlands and by the European Union.

Tabel I: Half-lifes of some radio-isotopes:
Group Isotope half-life (years)
Plutonium Pu-238
Pu-239 24,000
Pu-240 6,500
Pu-241 14.4
Pu-242 376,050
Some Minor Actinides Np-237 2.14 million
Am-241 432
Am-243 7,385
Cm-245 8,506
Cm-247 15.6 million
Some Long-Lived Zr-93 1,5 million
Fusion Products Tc-99 210,000
Pd-107 6.5 million
Sn-126 100,000
I-129 16 million
Cs-135 1.3 million

1] Half-life: Period in which 50% of the isotope atoms decay into other atoms, which are mostly radioactive, too. Short-lived nuclear isotopes can decay into long-lived isotopes. One example: plutonium-241 (T 1/2: 14.4 yr) decays into americium- 241 (T 1/2: 430 yr) which radiates much more. Transmutation can also result in creating long-lived isotopes from short- or medium-lived isotopes.


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