China says it knows how to reprocess nuclear fuel (Update 2)

January 3, 2011 By CHRISTOPHER BODEEN , Associated Press
A water-cooling tower emits a cloud of steam from a coal-fired power station in Beijing. Chinese scientists say they have developed nuclear fuel reprocessing technology that could effectively end uranium supply concerns, according to state media, as Beijing strives for energy security.

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 Monday.

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 - the actual materials used to make nuclear energy - 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, although China has long had a nuclear arsenal.

U.S. commercial reprocessing of plutonium was halted by then-President Jimmy Carter because of nuclear proliferation worries. Then-President George W. Bush proposed a resumption, but the National Research Council found it not economically justifiable. President Barack Obama scrapped the Bush effort.

Recovered plutonium and - when prices are high - uranium can be re-used. 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 Matthew Bunn, an expert on the Chinese nuclear program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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 build a pilot-scale reprocessing plant several years ago but repeatedly postphoned using it, possibly because of technical problems.

"My interpretation of this statement is that they have resolved whatever issues were delaying that," Bunn 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 U.S., the IEA said.

The consumption boom reflects China's transformation from a nation of subsistence farmers to one of workers increasingly trading bicycles for cars and buying air conditioners and other energy-hungry home electronics.

That has also bestowed on China status as the world's biggest polluter, although Beijing has long pointed at developed nations in climate change talks and resists international pressure for it to take a larger role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Explore further: China's fast reactor set for tests in 2010


Related Stories

China to be 3rd biggest wind power producer: media

January 1, 2010

China is set to become the world's third largest wind power producer in 2009, state media reported, as the Asian giant seeks various ways to expand energy supply to power its economic boom.

China triples wind power capacity goal: report

May 4, 2009

China has more than tripled its target for wind power capacity to 100 gigawatts by 2020, likely making it the world's fastest growing market for wind energy technology, state press said.

Recommended for you

What do you get when you cross an airplane with a submarine?

February 15, 2018

Researchers from North Carolina State University have developed the first unmanned, fixed-wing aircraft that is capable of traveling both through the air and under the water – transitioning repeatedly between sky and sea. ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Jan 03, 2011
Details, please. Are they bombarding U-238 with neutrons to make Pu-239? Are they turning Thorium into Uranium?
3 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2011
yay, an awsome 5 percent of total. I demand more nuclear power.
5 / 5 (5) Jan 03, 2011
Well this artcle is a letdown.

'Chinese scientists discover the answer to life' But no details are given...
not rated yet Jan 03, 2011
Headline only, where's the beef?
1.5 / 5 (8) Jan 03, 2011
This may be a new process, but I don't think it is new technology. Could be wrong since nuclear science is magic to me.
More to the point. I don't want anything created by the 'state-run China National Nuclear Corp' to succeed. The horror this title conjures far surpasses any science fiction.
not rated yet Jan 03, 2011
better breeder reactor?
4.8 / 5 (4) Jan 03, 2011
"China's proven uranium sources will last only 50 to 70 years, but this now changes to 3,000 years," said the report, which provided scant details on what it described as a "breakthrough."

Whatever technology they have, are you surprised they're keeping it secret? The article isn't a letdown for reporting the information it was given. If anything, they should be given props for not speculating like any other news agency would
2.9 / 5 (10) Jan 03, 2011
We could have had the same tech operating safely and economically in this country for many years but for the traitorous 'hippie' movement back in the sixties. This was the same economic sabotage that cost us the SST and guaranteed that the only SST's that were built and operated successfully were the Russian AeroFlot Tupelov-144. It is a credit to mankind and to the Chinese that they were able to do this. Now they will be able to take this to space, hopefully with a nuclear main launch single stage to space craft. Such will fulfill mankind's destiny to claim our solar system for ourselves and our children. As for us, we may consider seeing to it that our children learn the language of our new masters and landlords in the future. Energy poor, the Chinese used slave labor to take our jobs. Now with tech of whatever origin, they will keep those jobs forever. In the future, WE will be THEIR slaves and clean their toilets gladly. Hippies really did a job on us.
2 / 5 (3) Jan 03, 2011
Don't count on that just yet. The west has some of the most brilliant scientists and developments - this is only of the only things i've heard the east develop.
3.9 / 5 (7) Jan 03, 2011
Standing Beer! Good luck with that toilet bowl career. Until this minute, I have never believed that alternative realities could interact. By the way, don't ever confuse Yuppies/Muppies(Mindless urban professionals) with Hippies.
When exactly before or after the bizarre, fatal TU 144 crash at Paris Air Show did this plane operate?
Wait! SORRY! I get it now. Your rant is sarcasm based on James Blish's 'Cities in Flight' novels of the '50s'. Now that's funny! Good job!!!
not rated yet Jan 03, 2011
Next figure out how to do the same for making clean water China, thats your next hurdle, not to mention most of the worlds problem too.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2011
Glad to see this more widely known. It's been possible, as it says, since Jimmy Carter let his ideology override his common sense. Anything that lets China dump coal, and thereby pressure the USA Coal Cartel to stop burning it, is a good thing.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 03, 2011
Wow there's still an awful lot of "reds under the beds" thinking going around.
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
seeing as though China has built 2/3rds of the 560 new coal fired powered plants from 2002-2006 maybe now they can get busy increasing their number of nuclear power plants from 13 to something much greater.
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
Try finding safe drinking water or food in China in 20 years after they've been dumping rad-waste all over the place, or had an accident or two form "re-process problems".
Nuclear; It 'aint clean, it 'aint green.
At most we should use it here during our transition to de-centralized solar and other renewables, while reducing use and conserving as a nation.
Keep the uranium in the ground.
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
StandingBear-"We could have had the same tech operating safely and economically in this country for many years but for the traitorous 'hippie' movement back in the sixties."
Change the name to "TalkingBull"!

MetEd, the operators of the plant DID lie about the radiation release that occurred.

Granted, it may have been small, but if you want a negative reaction from people with lasting effects, try lying after putting large numbers of peoples lives at risk.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 04, 2011
GreedyCorp, Inc. is the real traitor.
not rated yet Jan 04, 2011
"Nuclear; It 'aint clean, it 'aint green".
but it sho do burn...
5 / 5 (1) Jan 04, 2011
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.

Since it's a chemical process (assuming they're using the terminology right), this has nothing to do with changing how the fuel is fissioned but only with how the spent fuel is processed (ie. breeders over more traditional PWR/D20 reactors).

There's only so much U-235 you can pull from a spent rod which might give you 3-10x as much power from each rod. For 60x they must be talking about repeated extraction of plutonium from spent rods. This can already be done, so their tech is either more efficient than current technology or it can pull more plutonium per spent rod (better plutonium/uranium solvent or seperator or something).

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.