India: High Costs, Questionable Benefits of Reprocessing
- South Asians Against Nukes
o o o
Economic and Political Weekly
November 25, 2006, pp. 4848-4851
HIGH COSTS, QUESTIONABLE
BENEFITS OF REPROCESSING
The department of atomic energy's claim that "economic considerations
dictated the need for spent fuel reprocessing in India" is
questionable since reprocessing is far more expensive as a waste
management strategy than the common alternative of direct disposal in
geological repositories. This is unlikely to change even under the
assumption that the plutonium extracted has some economic value when
used to fuel breeder reactors to generate electricity.
by J Y Suchitra, M V Ramana
In a recent newspaper interview, Anil Kakodkar, chairman of the
Atomic Energy Commission, stated that "We have been adopting the
principle or philosophy of closed nuclear fuel cycle, which means
that the spent fuel, after its use in the reactor, must be
reprocessed, and uranium and plutonium recycled" [Subramanian 2006].
Based on this logic, Kakodkar has argued that allowing for
reprocessing is a necessary precondition for the Indo-US nuclear deal
and that the conditions imposed by the US Congress on reprocessing
and enrichment would not be acceptable. This presupposes that
reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is desirable in the first place.
In this note, we examine some of the arguments offered by Kakodkar
and others in favour of reprocessing and find them wanting. We also
look at the economic rationale of reprocessing - an aspect completely
neglected by the department of atomic energy (DAE) and other policy-
makers. We show that reprocessing is far more expensive as a waste
management strategy than the most common alternative, direct disposal
in geological repositories.
This is unlikely to change even if one assumes that the plutonium
extracted has some economic value when used to fuel breeder reactors
to generate electricity.
The DAE's interest in reprocessing goes back to its inception in 1954
and the adoption of a nuclear power programme comprising of three
stages [Bhabha and Prasad 1958]. The first stage was to in- volve the
use of uranium in heavy water reactors, the second stage was to
involve breeder reactors (which produce more fissile material than
they consume) fuelled by plutonium, and the third stage was to
involve breeder reactors fuelled by ura- nium-233 derived from
thorium. Both plutonium and uranium-233 are obtained by reprocessing
spent fuel. Reprocessing, therefore, is a necessary step for the
breeders and the three-stage programme.
More than 50 years after the announcement of this programme, the DAE
is yet to build even one industrial scale breeder reactor that would
be part of the second stage. The first, the prototype fast breeder
reactor (PFBR), is just being constructed in Kalpakkam. Despite this
gaping mismatch between its widely proclaimed interest in breeders
and actual construction, the DAE projects that by 2052 there will be
2,75,000 MW of installed nuclear capacity, of which over 2,60,000 MW
will be from breeders.
The alternative to reprocessing, direct disposal, involves long-term
storage of the spent fuel followed by its encapsulation and permanent
storage in a geological repository. In this alternative the plutonium
is left in the spent fuel itself where the fission products provide a
radioactive barrier to its removal.
Table: Cost Components and Other Assumptions
(in 2004 Rs, unless otherwise mentioned)
Construction cost (mixed year Rs crore) 558.2 Overnight construction
cost (Rs crore) 1285.5 Annual O&M expenses (PREFRE)
(Rs crore) 9.4
Construction of waste immobilisation
plant (Rs crore) 164.25
Annual O&M expenses of WIP
(Rs crore) 6.2
Capital cost of S3F (Rs crore) 135.46
Transportation of vitrified waste
(Rs lakh/tSF) 1.35
Geological disposal of vitrified waste
(Rs lakh/tSF) 2
Decommissioning of KARP (Rs crore) 412
Efficiency of reprocessing plant (per cent) 80
Amount of plutonium per tonne of
spent fuel (kg/tSF) 3.75
Interim storage of spent fuel before
direct disposal (Rs lakh/tSF) 3.7
Transportation of spent fuel (Rs lakh/tSF) 3
Geological disposal of spent fuel
(Rs lakh/tSF) 4.5
Reprocessing also produces three waste streams classified on the
basis of their radio- active content as high level, intermediate
level and low level wastes. We emphasise that reprocessing does not
neutralise any of the radioactivity present in the spent fuel. The
volumes of radioactive waste produced actually increase, and some of
this is released to the environment. Radioactive discharges from the
Sellafield reprocessing plant in England have been detected as far
away as Ireland and Norway [NRPA 2002]. Further, all of the
radioactive wastes not immediately released to the environment still
have to be disposed of at geological repositories. Thus, reprocessing
is by no means environmentally benign and results in greater
ecological impact than direct disposal.
Though the DAE did not advertise the fact when it first started
reprocessing spent fuel in the mid-1960s, plutonium can also be used
to make nuclear weapons. The DAE's own priorities for plutonium can
be gauged by when its first breeder reactor became operational and
when it conducted its first nuclear weapons test: 1985 and 1974
Although many reasons are provided by the DAE to refuse safeguards on
its reprocessing facilities and the breeder programme, DAE officials
hesitate to openly admit to the possibility that plutonium generated
at the PFBR and other breeders might be used to make weapons. Every
year the PFBR could produce on the order of 135 kg of weapons grade
plutonium, sufficient for about 25-30 weapons, a four to fivefold
increase over the current weapon plutonium production capacity [Mian
et al 2006]. The DAE does not want to let go of this option because
its institutional clout is hinged upon its ability to make large
quantities of fissile material for weapons.
The general conclusion in western studies is that reprocessing is
uneconomical [NEA 1994; National Research Council 1996; Deutch et al
2003; Bunn et al 2005]. Nevertheless, and without any rigorous study
to support its assertions, the DAE maintains that "economic
considerations dictated the need for spent fuel reprocessing in
India" [Prasad 1996:13] (our emphasis). This assertion can be
questioned in two ways. First, as a mere waste management option is
it cheaper to reprocess spent fuel or directly dispose it? Second, if
the economic consideration is the use of plutonium in breeder
reactors, then would the electricity produced therein be cheaper than
other alternatives when the costs involved in obtaining plutonium
through reprocessing are internalised?
We have undertaken an independent analysis to estimate the
reprocessing costs using publicly available data [Ramana and
Suchitra, forthcoming]. Since the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC),
which operates the heavy water reactors producing spent fuel, does
not pay anything for reprocessing [Thakur and Chaurasia 2005], the
cost of plutonium derived would equal what it costs to extract it
from the spent fuel, i e, the cost of reprocessing. This cost should
determine the rate at which the DAE either "sells"or "leases"
plutonium to BHAVINI, the organisation set up to operate breeder
In India, currently there are three major reprocessing plants - at
Trombay, Tarapur (PREFRE) and Kalpakkam (KARP). The DAE envisions
augmenting its reprocessing capacity several fold to cater to the
needs of additional breeder reactors. The reference point in our
examination of the economics of reprocessing is the costs associated
with the most recently commissioned reprocessing plant, KARP, which
is also to serve as the standard design for future plants [Dey 2003].
The cost of reprocessing is derived from the total life cycle cost,
calculated using the discounted cash flow methodology with a real
discount rate of 5 per cent, of the plant, assumed to function at a
particular capac- ity factor. Since there is no information available
on the actual capacity at which the plant has been operating, we
estimate the costs assuming a capacity factor of 80 per cent.1 This
assumption is optimistic (and favourable to the economics of
reprocessing) since the past performance of reprocessing plants in
India has been mediocre at best. PREFRE, at Tarapur, operatedat an
average throughput of less than 25 tHM/ y for over a decade, while
its nominal design capacity was 100 tHM/y [Hibbs 1995].
The total cost of reprocessing consists of three components. These
are the capital cost of constructing the facility, the annual
operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, and the waste management
expenses from the running of the facility in an environmentally
acceptable manner. There is also the cost of decommissioning the
facility and disposing the radioactive and other materials after the
plant has finished its operating life. The data sources used for the
estimation of these costs are the Performance Budgets and Annual
Reports of the DAE, the Expenditure Budgets of the government of
India, and reports of the comptroller and auditor general (CAG) and
the ministry of statistics and programme implementation.
Unfortunately, none of these sources is comprehensive in reporting
the expenditure on the reprocessing plant and associated facilities.
There are also various inconsistencies between different reports (and
sometimes different pages on the same report) that we have tried our
best to resolve.
In the case of direct disposal, the main cost components are those
associated with the storage of spent fuel prior to its em- placement
in a geological repository, transportation, and the actual geological
repository. The first is estimated from the projected costs of the
Away From Reactor storage facility in Rajasthan [Kulkarni et al 2003;
Srinivasan 1995]. Neither data nor any projections are available for
geological repository costs and we use Canadian estimates as a proxy.
These costs and other assumptions are listed in the table.
Based on these figures, our estimate for the total cost of
reprocessing is Rs 25,983 per kg of spent fuel. Assuming that 100 per
cent of the plutonium is recovered, the cost of producing each gram
of plutonium is Rs 6,745. The cost of reprocessing depends
sensitively on the efficiency with which the plant operates. If the
capacity factor were 70 per cent, the reprocessing cost goes up to Rs
29,569 per kg of SF. On the other hand, direct disposal costs only Rs
1,120 per kg of spent fuel. Clearly, as a waste management option,
reprocessing is several times more expensive than direct disposal.
What could make reprocessing economically viable would be if the
plutonium were to be used in nuclear reactors to produce electricity,
and that turns out to be cheaper than the corresponding costs of
producing electricity using uranium fuel. It has been established
that this is not the case with western reactors and associated
facilities till uranium prices are much higher than current values
[Bunn et al 2005]. Our preliminary calculations using cost estimates
of the PFBR indicate the same.
All of this nullifies the DAE's claims that reprocessing is dictated
by economic considerations.
Plutonium Mining Argument
In his interview, Kakodkar offers another justification for
reprocessing: "spent fuel, if deposited in repositories for long-term
disposal, would over a period of time become a virtual plutonium mine
once most of the radioactive components decay out. This can thus
become a serious security issue over a long term". Since this is a
new consideration within the Indian debate, we discuss it at some
While spent fuel emplaced in geological repositories could eventually
become a source of plutonium, it would be attractive only if
acquiring it is easier than alternative means; this is almost never
the case [Lyman 1994,1998]. Two possible scenarios may be considered.
One is that the nation that has a geological repository also has an
active nuclear fuel chain, with operating reactors and other nuclear
facilities. Then, there will be a ready supply of spent fuel
available at reactors. Further, if as in the case of India, there are
reprocessing plants as well, there would also be stockpiles of
separated plutonium. Spent fuel in a sealed geologic repository well
below the surface, then, would be a relatively unattractive source of
plutonium, assuming that repositories were safeguarded at a level
consistent with other stages of the fuel cycle.
The second possibility is that nuclear power had been phased out and
neither operable reactors nor retrievable spent fuel storage
facilities exist. In this case, the only means of acquiring spent
fuel other than mining the repository would be the construction and
operation of production reactors and associated front-end facilities
(e g, uranium mining and fuel fabrication) from scratch. While this
would at face value seem more difficult, the catch is that both
mining plutonium from geological repositories and the alternative, i
e, producing plutonium from scratch, would have to be done in a
clandestine fashion without being detected. Monitoring and detection
is far easier at a limited number of known repositories while
clandestine nuclear production could go on virtually anywhere. Only
when the scale of the clandestine production becomes very large,
roughly at a rate comparable to the highest rate of production
achieved by the super- powers during the cold war, would its
detection achieve a level of certainty that is comparable with
plutonium mining [Lyman 1994].
To this technical argument, we may add three more. First, there are
far more serious security concerns because of plutonium being
extracted at reprocessing plants. It is not only more easily
accessible since it is above the ground, but it is in theory possible
to access it today. This is much more dangerous than the situation
foreseen -- that at some undefined time in the future, the spent fuel
which has been buried deep in the earth would become an attractive
source of plutonium. Second, the hypocrisy of the DAE is abundantly
evident in this statement - it is currently sitting on plenty of
plutonium resulting from reprocessing and making nuclear weapons
using the same while pontificating about unspecified people accessing
plutonium. Finally, considering the DAE's history of secrecy and
lack of transparency, it will be nearly impossible for outsiders to
get adequate information on the geological repository, especially
details such as location and depth that are needed to proceed with
mining spent fuel.2
If indeed one is serious about future security concerns, the obvious
thing to do is to stop producing any more plutonium, which would mean
the shut down of all nuclear reactors. Preaching about the
in-security caused by nuclear weapons while producing more and more
of them is hypocritical, to say the least.
For too long now the DAE has been touting the necessity of
reprocessing, while neglecting to analyse its economics. Our
estimates show that reprocessing spent fuel is much more expensive
than directly dispose it. These figures also suggest that breeder
reactors will be more uneconomical than the DAE's heavy water
reactors, even at much higher uranium prices, calling to question the
idea of reliance on breeders for energy security.
The DAE and others have also advanced a number of other specious
arguments in favour of reprocessing. An old one is that reprocessing
is environmentally-friendly is untenable. When spent fuel is
reprocessed, the radioactive elements therein are separated into
multiple waste streams and gases; some of these are released to the
environment and disperse over wide areas. A new argument within the
Indian debate (but has been punctured elsewhere) is that direct
disposal of spent fuel would lead to the creation of virtual
plutonium mines. The slight risk that spent fuel could be mined from
a geological repository and plutonium extracted to make nuclear
weapons pales in comparison with the extant risks of having large
stockpiles of separated plutonium and continuing to make more and
more of it.
Reprocessing, therefore, is costly, and its benefits, questionable.
It may be time for the DAE to give up its 50-year old attachment to
this bad idea.
1 Studies based on reprocessing plants in the west also assume
capacity factors in the range of 70 to 80 per cent. In the OECD/NEA
study, for example, the reprocessing plant is assumed to operate at a
capacity factor of 75 per cent [NEA 1994]. Actual performance
figures may be even lower; for example, the British THORP
reprocessing plant has been running at 50 per cent of capacity for
the last several years [Brown 2003]. Similarly, the Tokai
reprocessing plant in Japan operated at less than 45 per cent
capacity between 1977 and 2005 [Walker 2006].
2 The DAE's efforts at identifying a site for geological waste
disposal are also shrouded in secrecy. In March 1997 the inhabitants
of Sanawada village near Pokhran were told that the Minerals
Exploration Corporation (MECL) was digging for precious stones
[Special Correspondent 2000]. Only by accident was it discovered that
it was the BARC that was drilling and that Sanawada was being
considered as a potential nuclear waste storage location. Apparently
even the chief minister of Rajasthan did not know of these plans.
Thanks to a campaign by anti-nuclear activists, the BARC stopped
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