BEIJING — Chinese scientists have mastered the technology for reprocessing nuclear fuel, potentially yielding additional power sources 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 by allowing the recovery of fissile and fertile materials to provide 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 out and recover the unused uranium and plutonium, reduce waste and close the nuclear cycle for safety reasons. Each country's process is generally considered an industrial secret and not shared.
Both the recovered plutonium and — when prices are high — the uranium can then be re-used as fuel. As well, some types of reactors can use other components that are reprocessed, potentially multiplying the amount of energy that results from the original uranium fuel by about 60 times.
However, reprocessing is controversial because the extracted plutonium can be used to produce nuclear weapons. It also costs substantially more than using fuel once and then storing it as waste.
China, which has possessed nuclear weapons for decades, has known supplies of nuclear fuel to last 50-70 years, but the new process could yield enough extra fuel to potentially extend that to 3,000 years, the report said. Chinese scientists have been working on the technology for more than 20 years, but the details of the process they developed are being kept secret, CCTV said.
No timeframe was given for when China will begin reprocessing on an industrial scale.
China is heavily dependent on coal for energy, but has launched an ambitious plan to add hundreds of nuclear power plants to its 13 currently in use.
China overtook the United States in 2009 to become the world's largest energy consumer, years before it was expected to do so, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.
China's total 2009 consumption, including energy 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 fingers at developed nations in climate change talks and resists any label that could increase international pressure for it to take a larger role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.