Bush Nuclear Fuel-Cycle Program Suffers Blows

Miles A. Pomper

After a sharply critical report from a high-level independent panel and amid continued criticism from Congress, the Bush administration appears to be scaling back its ambitions for the domestic leg of its controversial Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Meanwhile, other international nuclear fuel supply efforts seem to be attracting more attention.

Administration officials have claimed that the initiative, which seeks to develop new nuclear technologies and new international nuclear fuel arrangements, will reduce nuclear waste and decrease the risk that an anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide could spur nuclear proliferation. Critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere assert that the administration’s course would exacerbate the proliferation risks posed by the spread of reprocessing technology, be prohibitively expensive, and fail to significantly ease waste disposal challenges without any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed.

An Oct. 29 report from a National Research Council (NRC) panel, commissioned by the Department of Energy, sided strongly with the critics, concluding that the department should “not move forward” with GNEP, particularly efforts to develop new commercial-scale facilities for reprocessing and for burning a new type of nuclear fuel. Citing a lack of urgency and appropriate technical knowledge, the NRC panel said the department should return to an earlier course in which it conducted a “less aggressive research program.”

The panel’s judgment echoes criticism from most lawmakers on relevant committees on Capitol Hill. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees  have approved legislation that would substantially cut funds for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, which underpins GNEP, and limit spending to research. (See ACT, October 2007. )

Indeed, Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy, told the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee Nov. 14 that rather than annually confront such budget battles, he would personally favor funding GNEP in the future with a portion of a fee on electricity generation that Congress has imposed on nuclear power plant operators to pay for disposing of spent fuel. He said that the U.S. government has accumulated close to $20 billion from this fee, which has yet to be spent because of continued political wrangling over a planned permanent repository for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

The GNEP program calls for research on new reprocessing technologies that administration officials 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 advanced burner reactors to make use of the reprocessed fuel. The administration also claims that doing so will reduce the volume of spent nuclear fuel currently stored at nuclear reactors so that the United States will not have to build another permanent repository.

The proposal has drawn criticism, in part because facilities that reprocess spent fuel for plutonium-based fuels might also be used to harvest plutonium for nuclear bombs. By establishing such facilities, critics say, the United States might be encouraging other countries to do so as well, perhaps leading to nuclear weapons proliferation. Because of such concerns, the United States had shied away from spent fuel reprocessing for nearly three decades until GNEP was launched in 2006.

Department officials had indicated that, by the summer of 2008, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman would decide whether to build new commercial-scale fuel facilities and “fast” reactors that could produce and burn such new fuels. By that time, four industry groups are slated to provide studies examining financial, technical, and other issues.

The NRC panel said making such a decision next year would be unnecessarily hasty. “Domestic waste management, security, and fuel supply needs are not adequate to justify early deployment of commercial-scale reprocessing and fast-reactor facilities,” the panel wrote.

In particular, the panel said it was not clear if a second waste repository would be needed. It also argued that the knowledge of appropriate technologies was not sufficient to move to commercial-scale facilities. It said the cost of the program would be far more expensive than proceeding with the current once-through nuclear fuel cycle, a conclusion backed by the Congressional Budget Office in testimony before the Senate panel.

The NRC panel also said that “qualifying” the new fuel—ensuring it could be used appropriately in the reactor—would take many years. Instead the panel advocated returning to a lower-level research program to provide more basic information before choosing any particular path forward.

In his testimony before the Senate committee, Spurgeon acknowledged that the department would not be ready to move forward with commercial deployment of any new reprocessing technologies in the near future.

After the hearing, he told reporters that he did not expect Bodman next summer to call for any immediate construction of commercial-scale facilities using existing technologies employed by France and Japan that separate pure plutonium, an approach championed by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the panel’s ranking member. Rather, Spurgeon said the department would be charting a “technology path” forward for research, though his remarks did not close out the possibility of using COEX, a process nearly ready for commercial deployment that extracts and precipitates uranium and plutonium (and possibly neptunium) together so that plutonium is never separated on its own.

Still, Spurgeon pointed to some progress in the program’s international dimension when Italy on Nov. 13 became the 17th country to join GNEP. Sixteen countries had signed GNEP’s statement of principles in September, although the list did not include such important nuclear energy consumers and producers as Germany and the United Kingdom. Also, it is not clear how much weight Rome’s participation carries. Italy at one time had five power reactors and two under construction; but it shut down all of its nuclear power plants after a 1987 referendum in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

GNEP received a bigger boost on Nov. 29 when Canada, the world’s largest uranium producer, joined the partnership.

Ottawa had held back from joining the partnership earlier amid political controversy over whether GNEP would require Canada to accept spent fuel from other country or  limit its ability to enrich its own fuel.

Multilateral Fuel-Cycle Alternatives

Nevertheless, countries are putting more emphasis on efforts other than GNEP to control the nuclear fuel cycle, primarily aiming at its “front end.” Such efforts seek to limit the spread of technologies such as uranium enrichment, which can produce low-enriched uranium for fresh nuclear fuel, or highly enriched uranium, which can also be used as fissile material for nuclear weapons. Concerns over uranium enrichment have been at the center of the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program (see page xx). By contrast, GNEP primarily focuses on “back end” technologies that address how to deal with spent fuel from nuclear reactors.

In September, the U.S. administration had indicated that although the program was conceived in the wake of President George W. Bush’s February 2004 call to halt the spread of enrichment or reprocessing facilities to new countries, it would not require such forbearance as a condition of GNEP membership.

“We’re not asking countries to sign a statement that they will never enrich or never reprocess,” Spurgeon elaborated in an October interview with Arms Control Today.

The administration has taken other steps to encourage participation in the partnership. For example, it has said that a multinational steering committee, not the United States, will dictate GNEP’s direction and that the partnership will operate by consensus.

Nonetheless, multinational enrichment efforts seem to be moving more rapidly in the international arena than GNEP’s focus on reprocessing.

Nikolay Spasskiy, the deputy head of Russia’s atomic energy agency, told reporters after the September GNEP meeting that the U.S. initiative was one of only several such efforts and its importance should not be overemphasized.

Russia and Kazakhstan on Sept. 5 announced that they had inaugurated the use of an enrichment facility in Angarsk, Siberia, as an international center with joint ownership. The center is eventually envisaged as a multinational operation that will produce low-enriched uranium fuel under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring.

Armenia took a step toward that goal Nov. 29, announcing that it would participate in the center. Moerover, Spasskiy told Platts Nuclear Fuel in September that he expected Ukraine to join the venture before the end of the year and that Mongolia and South Korea are closely studying participation. Spasskiy’s boss, Sergey Kiriyenko, told Russian reporters in October that Australia and Japan also have indicated interest in participation, although Kiriyenko said that Japan has insisted that the facility first be placed under IAEA safeguards. Kiriyenko said an agreement with the agency could be in place by the middle of 2008.

South Africa is another potential candidate for an enrichment center. In September, South Africa declined to participate in GNEP, dealing a serious blow to U.S. ambitions for the program. Spurgeon claims that South Africa may still participate, saying its representatives “had a lot of questions” and a “misunderstanding” about GNEP’s requirements, particularly whether South Africa would have to forgo enrichment or reprocessing.

But Tseliso Maqubela, chief director for nuclear energy at the South African Department of Minerals and Energy, told Platts NuclearFuel in September that South Africa wished to set up a centrifuge enrichment facility on its territory in which it could utilize the shared technology of foreign partners and that if South Africa was unable to do so, it would develop the technology domestically. Major international enrichment companies have generally balked at providing foreign countries with access to the proliferation-sensitive technology.

In a Sept. 24 Platts NuclearFuel interview, French Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Alain Bugat said that France would open a new centrifuge enrichment plant under construction to “international partnerships” and would provide details within a few months. The French enrichment company Eurodif has involved Belgium, Italy, and Spain (and formerly Iran) as international partners in its gaseous diffusion plant at Tricastin.