The spent fuel from a nuclear reactor is so intensely radioactive that it will remain unapproachable for several hundred years. In addition, the spent fuel contains many long-lived highly toxic substances that will remain dangerous (as potential pollutants) for millions of years.
WHAT IS REPROCESSING? 
It does have its uses, however. One of the most toxic substances contained in spent uranium fuel is a man-made substance called plutonium. Indeed, plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known to humankind.
But plutonium is not just a radioactive poison. Plutonium can be used to fuel a nuclear reactor, and it is also the key ingredient needed to make "cheap" atom bombs.
Nuclear technologists around the world are interested in separating plutonium from spent fuel in order to make use of the plutonium, for good or for ill.
The chemical procedure for separating plutonium or fissionable uranium from spent nuclear fuel is called reprocessing.
Separating plutonium from spent fuel is a dangerous and a dirty business. First the fuel is chopped up, by remote control, behind heavy lead shielding. These chopped-up pieces are then dissolved in boiling nitric acid, releasing radioactive gases in the process. The plutonium is separated from the acid solution by chemical means, leaving large quantities of high-level radioactive liquid waste and sludge behind. After it has cooled down for several years, this liquid waste will have to be solidified for ultimate disposal, while the separated plutonium is fabricated into nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons.
Reprocessing plants around the world have exhibited poor records of occupational safety, pollution control, waste containment, and security. For example, at the Hanford military plutonium reprocessing plant in Washington State, over a million gallons of high-level liquid waste has escaped from steel-and-concrete tanks into the soil. One gallon of this waste is enough to ruin an entire city's water supply. Hanford workers have also shown a significant increase in the incidence of cancer. In Russia, an explosion involving high-level liquid waste contaminated hundreds of square miles and hospitalized thousands of people. In the UK, a small explosion in 1973 occurred at the Windscale reprocessing plant [now known as Sellafield], and radioactive effluents have been substantial. In the US, large quantities of plutonium are missing and "unaccounted for" -- enough to make several hundred atomic bombs.
By 1977, major policy studies in several countries had recommended against reprocessing as a matter of national policy. Nevertheless, Atomic Energy of Canada Limited determined in 1977 that they, in cooperation with Ontario Hydro, would like to build a large demonstration reprocessing plant in Canada as soon as humanly possible.
[ AECL Seminar on Plutonium in Canada (1977) ]The Canadian plans were to begin with plutonium reprocessing and then move to thorium reprocessing, leading to the so-called thorium cycle.
Although thorium (a naturally occurring substance) cannot be used to fuel a nuclear reactor, it can be mixed with a nuclear fuel like uranium-233 (a man-made substance) which can be used to fuel a reactor.
Canadian nuclear authorities intended the following:
- to reprocess spent uranium fuel to recover plutonium ;
- to fabricate plutonium fuel in a thorium matrix;
- to reprocess spent thorium/plutonium fuel to recover uranium-233 ;
- to fabricate uranium-233 fuel in a thorium matrix ;
- to reprocess spent thorium/uranium-233 fuel to recover uranium-233 ;
- to repeat steps 4 and 5 as long as possible.
Thorium reprocessing raises all of the same problems as plutonium reprocessing, without any significant differences in the degree of hazard involved.
The proposed Canadian reprocessing plant would be almost identical in size to the American reprocessing plant at West Valley, New York (the largest reprocessing plant ever to operate in North America), using the same basic separation technology. The record of the West Valley plant is quite appalling:
Reprocessing spent nuclear fuel also makes separated plutonium (or separated uranium-233) available for possible theft or diversion to military purposes. The manufacture of a crude atomic bomb by a terrorist organization having access to separated plutonium (or uranium-233) is a credible threat. So is the manufacture of plutonium dispersal devices which would be capable of killing tremendous numbers of people without any explosion.
- The West Valley plant was deserted by its owners in 1972, leaving 600,000 gallons of high-level liquid waste and 30,000 gallons of radioactive sludge as a legacy to the State of New York. Solidification of this waste has been estimated by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to cost about $500 million, once they solve the associated technical problems, which (it is estimated) will take a minimum of 14 years.
- Occupational exposures to radiation were very high at West Valley. In 1971, almost 1000 transient workers were hired to keep exposures to the 162 full-time workers down. Nevertheless, over three-quarters of the full-timers were over-exposed.
- Radioactive effluents into the environment from West Valley were very high. Concentrations of strontium-90 in local creeks were from 1000 to 10,000 times higher than projected. Over 65% of all the available Iodine-129 (half-life 17 million years) was released, either as a gas of liquid, showing up in the thyroids of wildlife and in cow's milk.
Canadian nuclear authorities have always been most reluctant to speak publicly about their plans for reprocessing, and have on numerous occasions over the years given very misleading information to decision-makers on topics related to reprocessing. The Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility believes that complete openness and candour is imperative in matters of such importance to Canada and to the world.
In the September 1978 issue of Science Forum, Mr. Ray Burge, Director of Public Relations for AECL stated that "AECL has never put up to the government a proposal for reprocessing" (page 32). This statement is somewhat misleading.
On February 28 1977, eight top officials from AECL spent an entire day in Ottawa briefing senior civil servants on the details of what they called their "Proposed Canadian Fuel Cycle Centre". Ross Campbell, Chairman of AECL, opened the meeting by saying:
"We would not have asked you to set aside a whole day if we had not considered the subject matter -- the proposed Canadian fuel cycle program and the associated question of waste management -- to be both important for Canada's energy future and urgent.... The separation and use of plutonium would be a long-range job requiring careful planning and research.... We are already late in starting to bring this new energy source on stream in the critical last decade of this century, when real shortages of energy will appear."
Later in the seminar, Mr. Hatcher of AECL explained further:"We must learn how to reprocess fuels to recover the valuable materials, plutonium, uranium-233, and thorium.... We have shown the design of this [pilot reprocessing plant] starting this year  and operational by 1981.... Its first priority would be to test the reprocessing of thorium.... This is an extremely tight schedule and the timing is critical.... We need a start this year on a pilot plant for reprocessing.... Any delays in committing the first phase of this program will lead to similar delays in completion...."
Still later in the day, Mr. Mayman of AECL re-emphasized the urgency with which the proposal was being made."If I had time to show you more detailed schedules, you would see that they are virtually incompressible.... The development of the Fuel Cycle Centre on the schedule we have set for ourselves is a very demanding target. Timely government approvals are essential. Funding requirements are significant."
Just how significant the funding requirements might be was indicated by John Foster, then President of AECL, in his concluding remarks:
"The main capital item, a demonstration fuel cycle plant, might cost up to $500 million. An operating staff of 900 people for 10 years would cost about $500 million. The total cost of the program is therefore probably between $1.5 and $2 billion."It is puzzling to observe how the nuclear power industry, which claims to be economically competitive with other energy sources, is still unable to pay for its own research and development costs without massive billion-dollar transfusions from the Canadian taxpayer. Most industries do not have such ready access to the public coffers!
On April 29. 1977, Ross Campbell circulated the text of the AECL seminar to all the participants, with the following directive attached:"In view of the incomplete state of the Government's consideration of the program, I would ask you to retain the enclosure for your personal use until such time as there is an announcement by the Federal and Ontario governments concerning the scope of the program they are prepared to support."
At the time, none of this had been made known to the Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, who naively posed the following question:
"Although neither Ontario Hydro nor any Canadian agency is considering at present the development of processing plants to separate plutonium-239 from spent nuclear fuel ... this may be a possibility in the future. To what extent would commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing, to separate out plutonium-239 and produce enriched fuel bundles, be acceptable in Ontario?" (Issue Paper #1, p. 13)In their 1977 brief to the RCEPP, entitled "Nuclear Power: The Canadian Issues", AECL neglected to mention -- even in passing -- the plans which were so eloquently articulated in the February 1977 Ottawa Seminar.
On May 25, 1977, the Toronto Star spilled the beans, using a copy of the text of the briefing seminar that was leaked to them. Only then, on May 26, was a copy of that same text filed with the RCEPP as Exhibit 85.
The story does not end there. On June 5, 1978, a joint announcement was made by Reuben Baetz, Energy Minister for Ontario, and Alastair Gillespie, Minister of Energy Mines and Resources. This announcement, long awaited by Mr. Campbell of AECL, indicated that an agreement had been reached between the two levels of government to embark on an ambitious research and development program related to the management of Canada's nuclear wastes.
The announced program will include the construction of a central interim storage facility for spent fuel as well as a facility for the immobilization and storage of nuclear wastes. The schedule for these two projects, both of which are discussed in detail in the February 1977 AECL seminar, is essentially the same as that outlined at the Ottawa briefing more than a year before the announcement was made. The only noticeable difference is the absence of a reprocessing facility in the June announcement.
There can be no doubt, however, that reprocessing is what AECL really wanted to get into. At the Ottawa seminar, Mr. Hatcher stated:"AECL believes that our major long term program should be development and demonstration of fuel recycle and disposal of radioactive wastes. Given a start this year  and the availability of world technology through agreements with other countries, we believe that it is possible to complete this by the end of the century."
The joint federal-provincial announcement is a major step in the direction outlined by the AECL, since it will provide all the necessary infrastructure for reprocessing: a fleet of 70-tonne shipping flasks, a central storage facility, and a waste immobilization unit. The RCEPP has recommended against central interim storage of spent nuclear fuel, because such a step would presuppose that reprocessing will take place -- otherwise, there would be no economic justification for such an undertaking.
There is a distinct possibility that all of the public relations talk about waste disposal may act as a smoke screen, preventing members of the public from seeing the drift toward plutonium reprocessing. As John Foster pointed out in his concluding remarks at the AECL Ottawa seminar:
"I have not said much about the waste disposal aspect. This is not because it is not important -- it is extremely important; but it is a part of the total program. It cannot be dissociated from the fuel cycle program.... Admittedly a positive decision with respect to the back end of the fuel cycle, today, takes a certain amount of guts because authorities all over the world are proceeding with understandable caution in the face of the bad name undeservedly attached to plutonium.... But plutonium is an extremely useful material and we will be dealing in it."The Government's Green Paper on Waste Management, EMR Report EP-77/6, commonly known as the Hare Report, also points out that all waste disposal plans in Canada have been made on the assumption that reprocessing would take place. It is only recently that the idea of immobilizing and disposing of the spent fuel without reprocessing has even been considered. Even now, it is only one of two possible options, as AECL and the Canadian and Ontario governments have explicitly left open the possibility that plutonium reprocessing could be an integral part of high level radioactive waste disposal.
The following two pages summarize the findings of three top-level nuclear policy studies published in the 1970's -- one from the UK, one from the US, and one from Canada -- on the subject of reprocessing.
1. A Race Against Time. Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, Interim Report on Nuclear Power, September 1978. Ontario Government: Toronto (1978).
"Spent fuel reprocessing and advanced [plutonium-based] fuel cycles should not be part of Ontario Hydro's system planning to the year 2000. Hence, there is no need for a central interim storage facility for spent fuel. All spent fuel should be stored at nuclear generating station sites, either in circulating water storage bays or in "dry storage" if this proves feasible." (xii-xiii)
"From health, environmental, and safety points of view, we believe that the existing CANDU cycle is much preferable to an advanced fuel cycle which would necessitate reprocessing and the management of high level liquid wastes." (p. 89-90)
"We prefer on-site (i.e. generating station site) spent fuel storage to a centralized facility. We believe that a central facility would presuppose the reprocessing of spent fuel; it would also involve more transportation and social and environmental problems." (p. 95)
The following measures would have major nonproliferation significance:
"As reprocessing and recycle have moved closer to reality, cost estimates have escalated until there are doubts about its economic merits. Simultaneously, concern has intensified about stimulus to nuclear weapons proliferation due to separation of plutonium and the possibility that terrorists might steal plutonium for weapons. The potential health hazards of plutonium and the impact of reprocessing on risks from nuclear wastes have also become important issues. This process has stimulated assessment of the benefits and costs of reprocessing and recycle and has reversed earlier optimism about the value of plutonium in the fuel cycle." (p. 320)
"Our net conclusion is that reprocessing and recycle are not essential to nuclear power, at least during the remainder of this century. In addition, there are potentially large social costs, including proliferation and theft risks in proceeding. A US decision to proceed despite disincentives would induce other countries to follow suit and undermine efforts to restrain proliferation. We believe that the reprocessing of spent fuel, even on a demonstration basis, should be deferred as a matter of national policy, until it is clearly necessary on a national scale." (p. 321)
"The dangers of the creation of plutonium in large quantities in conditions of increasing world unrest are genuine and serious. We should not rely for energy supply on a process that produces such a hazardous substance as plutonium unless there is no reasonable alternative. The abandonment of nuclear fission power would, however, be neither wise nor justified. But a major commitment to fission power and a plutonium economy should be postponed as long as possible." (p. 204)
"Plutonium appears to offer unique potential for threat and blackmail against society because of its great radiotoxicity and its fissile properties. The construction of a crude nuclear weapon by an illicit group is credible. We are not convinced that the Government has fully appreciated the implications of this possibility." (p. 202)