The Bush administration hopes emerging nuclear fuel-cycle technologies will help meet U.S. and global energy needs and reduce dangers that civilian nuclear programs might be corrupted for nuclear weapons. But even administration officials indicate that the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), an initiative to promote such technologies, is by no means assured of success.
In his Jan. 31 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush argued the United States had to break its “addiction” to oil by investing in alternative energy sources. GNEP is the nuclear component of a multi-pronged approach that also includes boosting solar and wind power. The administration is seeking $250 million in seed money for GNEP in its fiscal year 2007 budget request.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman unveiled GNEP Feb. 6. The initiative’s aims, Bodman explained, were to “extract more energy from nuclear fuel, reduce the amount of waste that requires permanent disposal, and greatly reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.” Speaking at the same event, Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell framed the initiative as part of “a nuclear renaissance, which we greatly need.”
GNEP rests on devising new ways of treating spent nuclear fuel so it can be used again and again, a process referred to as recycling, before being discarded as waste. Currently, the United States only runs nuclear fuel through a reactor once before disposing of it.
The United States abandoned commercial fuel recycling in the 1970s because of high costs and concerns about the dangers associ ated with chemical reprocessing, the current method for separating uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel for reuse. Because plutonium can be used to build nuclear bombs, Washingtondeclined to embrace an approach that created large quantities of bomb-ready material susceptible to misuse or theft. Despite U.S.apprehensions, France adopted a civilian spent-fuel reprocessing program, and Japan is on the verge of implementing one.
Administration officials envision GNEP as mooting past U.S. concerns by employing new reprocessing approaches, called UREX+ and pyroprocessing, that they say will not yield pure separated plutonium but a mixture, including plutonium, that is less applicable to making bombs. GNEP further calls for construction of new ad vanced burner reactors to make use of the reprocessed fuel.
But the new reprocessing technologies have yet to be proven on an industrial scale, and the new reactors must still be designed. En ergy Department officials seemed to acknowledge the many chal lenges facing GNEP by repeatedly couching it in qualified terms.
Bodman noted, “If we can make GNEP a reality…,” while Sell said, “Ultimately, we hope to be in a position to make a judg ment about the commercial viability of this approach in the coming years.” Sell also added that “the scale of what we are proposing is substantial and the level of [research and develop ment] and demonstration funding that would be required of this country is significant.”
Still, a Feb. 6 Energy Department press release quoted Bodman as declaring, “GNEP brings the promise of virtually limitless energy to emerging economies around the globe in an environmentally friendly manner while reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation.”
The International Aspect
The United States is aiming to get other advanced nuclear powers, such as France, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom, involved in GNEP. Participating countries would seek to develop new small-scale reactors that would operate their entire lifetime on one load of nuclear fuel, minimizing the risk that the fuel could be used for bomb purposes. GNEP countries would also work to devise new safeguard mechanisms to make it more difficult for nuclear materials and technologies in the civil sector to be di verted to building arms.
If the novel reprocessing approach pans out, Washington sees it as enabling GNEP participants to offer other countries a reliable supply of nuclear fuel and fuel services at an attractive price while limiting proliferation dangers. “We hope to develop an interna tional regime…so that fuel can be leased to a country interested in building a reactor and taking fuel, but then the fuel can be taken back to the fuel cycle country,” Sell explained.
Eligibility for this offer would depend on potential recipients forswearing acquisition of their own reprocessing or uranium-en richment capabilities. Uranium enrichment can be used to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel or highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
In February 2004, Bush called for a halt to the spread of reprocessing and enrichment capabilities. (See ACT, March 2004.) Washington , Moscow, and several European capitals are trying to persuade Tehran to give up its fledgling enrichment program. The United States says Iran’s stubborn refusal is evidence of its nuclear weapons ambitions.
Russia and International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei have advanced concepts similar to GNEP intended to stymie the diffusion of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Currently, 15 countries, including Iran, have such capabilities.
At a July 2005 Moscow conference, Kremlin officials floated the possibility of organizing a network of global nuclear-fuel supply centers based in Russia and other advanced nuclear powers, and Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated the proposal in January. ElBaradei has advocated establishing a guaranteed nuclear-fuel supply regime that would eventually evolve into multilateral management of all nuclear fuel facilities.
ElBaradei and Putin have said their proposals would be open to any government. Putin said Russia would provide “access without discrimination for all who desire it,” while ElBaradei has recommended a supply regime based on apolitical, objective criteria. The United States has not made similar statements, raising questions as to whether GNEP services would be available to governments not in Washington’s favor.
Sell indicated that reactions to GNEP by other capitals have been mixed. Although saying it had been “enthusiastically received” by some, he also admitted, “[T]here are different perspectives and different angles, and there are many details to be worked out.”
The reaction of U.S. lawmakers has fallen along party lines. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Feb. 9 that the “recycling technologies that are discussed under GNEP are exciting.” Similarly, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the initiative Feb. 16 “visionary.” Alternatively, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) said the same day that GNEP “has serious problems.” She cited potential costs of up to hundreds of billions of dollars, proliferation dangers, and doubts that recy cling would reduce nuclear waste.The handling of nuclear waste is politically divisive in the United States, and the GNEP proposal to bring back spent nuclear fuel from foreign countries could prompt more objections to the initiative. Indeed, public opposition has stalled the U.S. government’s plan to open a long-term spent nuclear-fuel and waste repository at Yucca Mountain.