Two sides of nuclear fuel
Updated: 2011-01-05 08:27
The country's uranium stock, which was previously expected to support our needs for merely 50 to 70 years, will now be enough for 3,000 years we are told. This is a marvelous leap forward in technology and will help ease our growing energy needs. For that alone, our nuclear scientists deserve the highest praise.
We are not nuclear scientists, nor can we live until 3,000 years from now to verify the truthfulness of the claim that China has made a technological breakthrough in reprocessing spent nuclear fuel that could extend uranium's usage by 60 times. But if this is the case, then it will certainly help meet China's future energy demands.
However, even if the technological breakthrough is capable of dramatically prolonging the country's nuclear fuel self-sufficiency and results in plenty of uranium to feed our nuclear power plants, we hope that the environmental impact of "reactor spent fuel reprocessing" is being taken into consideration.
Since spent nuclear fuels contain 96 to 97 percent of their uranium content before reprocessing, they are highly radioactive with devastating environmental potential. Thanks to strict government control over the industry and nuclear materials, wastes included, no accident has been reported as of yet, which is an achievement that needs to be maintained.
But the country's current approach, keeping spent fuel containers in special water tanks, has weaknesses. There is no guarantee each and every precondition to ensure safety will always remain satisfied. It may take between 500 to more than 2 million years for radioactive properties of spent fuel to decay naturally to the level of those in uranium ores. With such potentially disastrous consequences, we cannot rely on luck.
Globally, our country has the largest number of nuclear-power facilities in the pipeline; by the end of September 2010, the central government had approved the construction of 34 nuclear power generating units. This means the stock of spent nuclear fuels will be increasing. Unless properly taken care of, that could well turn out to be a huge threat to the environment.
The revolutionary significance of the reprocessing technique lies in the way nuclear contents in nuclear fuels are exploited. Technological feasibility aside, the new-found capability inspires us to hope, that one day the radioactive properties of all spent fuels from our nuclear reactors may be recycled and fully exploited.
In this way, their harmful potential to the environment can be reduced to a minimum. Even though that is not realistic now, that is where our future endeavors should be aimed.
(China Daily 01/05/2011 page8)
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