Nuclear threat from mountain of spent fuel

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 April, 2011, 12:00am


Thousands of tonnes of spent nuclear fuel will pose a severe safety threat on the mainland, one of China's top nuclear scientists has warned.

The 21st Century Business Herald quoted Xu Mi, a senior engineer at China National Nuclear Corporation, as saying that 25 to 30 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel is produced each year by a nuclear power plant generating one gigawatt output.

According to a plan unveiled earlier by the National Energy Administration, the country aims to boost nuclear energy output by up to 86 gigawatts in 2020.

In other words, China could be producing more than 2,400 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel a year within eight years.

Even if the figures are somewhat reduced in the aftermath of Japan's crisis at its Fukushima nuclear reactor, the task of processing spent fuel in the next decade will still be daunting.

'A huge amount of nuclear waste will come from newly built power plants, while previously produced waste has yet to be properly dealt with,' said Xu. 'It will pose a tremendous safety threat to the public as a result of the piling up of more and more nuclear fuel, year after year.'

He said the authorities should waste no time in exploring new technology to improve the handling of nuclear waste, the report said.

Wang Kan, a nuclear expert at Tsinghua University, said mainland nuclear plants currently either buried radioactive waste deep underground after cooling and repackaging it, or extracted useful materials, such as uranium, from the waste before reusing it as fuel.

Xu said burial was the most short-sighted way to deal with spent nuclear fuel. It was a huge waste to dump nuclear fuels that contained more than 95 per cent uranium, aside from the potentially lethal threat to humans from storing radioactive residue that would remain dangerous for hundreds of years.

Li Yongjiang, general manager of Nuclear Power Qinshan JV Corporation, said it would take at least 15 years to build a nuclear-fuel processing factory.

'As the technology involved in handling the waste could be even more complicated than nuclear-power generation itself, regional governments generally show no interest in pouring in huge amounts of capital to contain those highly radioactive materials,' he said.

Xu Shengli, another leading nuclear expert, said spent nuclear fuel could be classified under three categories depending on risk.

'For those fuels with a high radioactive nature, 10 milligrams would be strong enough to kill a human being,' he warned.

Citing official information, the report said there were two processing sites for medium and low levels of nuclear waste, one in Yumen, Gansu province, and another near Daya Bay, in Guangdong.

Waste of energy

One gigawatt of nuclear energy is said to create 30 tonnes of spent fuel

Plans to boost China's nuclear output to 86 gigawatts by 2020 would create this much waste, in tonnes: 2,400