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Congress Alters Bush’s Fuel Cycle Plans
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Miles A. Pomper

Lawmakers in December approved legislation that would sharply scale back the Bush administration’s proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and cut money for an unrelated facility meant to dispose of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. At the same time, the annual funding measure includes $50 million toward efforts to establish an international nuclear fuel bank under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The provisions were included in a fiscal year 2008 omnibus spending bill that Congress approved in mid-December. President George W. Bush signed the legislation Dec. 26.

GNEP, Fuel Disposal, and Reprocessing

GNEP seeks to develop new nuclear technologies, particularly for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, and new international nuclear fuel arrangements. Administration officials claim that these efforts 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 spent fuel reprocessing technologies, be prohibitively expensive, fail to ease waste disposal challenges significantly, and lack any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed.

GNEP’s critics were bolstered by an October report from a National Research Council (NRC) panel, commissioned by the Department of Energy, that concluded that the department should “not move forward” with the program, particularly efforts to develop new commercial-scale facilities for reprocessing and for burning a new type of nuclear fuel. (See ACT, December 2007. )

The funding bill provides money for research but blocks any expenditures for constructing commercial facilities or technology demonstration projects. Rather than providing the $395 million Bush had requested for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) with nearly all of the funds going for GNEP, lawmakers allocated only $181 million for AFCI.

The measure also falls significantly short of the Bush administration’s request for funds for a new facility at Savannah River, South Carolina, that will mix weapons-grade plutonium with depleted uranium to make new mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors.

Under a 2000 agreement, the United States and Russia each agreed to dispose of 34 metric tons of such plutonium but have not yet disposed of any. The Bush administration had pushed construction of the Savannah River facility as its means of meeting that goal, but ground was broken there only a few months ago. Funding for the project has trickled out for years as some lawmakers, particularly in the House of Representatives, have said other strategies should be employed because of the project’s costs, safety concerns, and potential proliferation risks and the failure of Russia to move forward on its end of the deal. (See ACT, April 2007. )

Indicating continued concerns, lawmakers approved $100 million less than the $334 million the administration had requested for construction of the facility. They cut Bush’s request for funding for other project costs at the facility from $97.5 million to $47.5 million, and they added a requirement that the Government Accountability Office monitor the facility’s construction and provide reports every three months on the progress of construction and associated scope, costs, and schedules.

Lawmakers also made clear that a recent administration effort to restructure the 2000 U.S.-Russian agreement in a fashion more to Russia’s liking had done little to ease their belief that Russia was not upholding its end of the bargain. (See ACT, December 2007. ) The legislation redirects all of the $208 million in funds that Congress had previously set aside to meet a $400 million U.S. pledge to help Russia meet its commitment under the deal.

Nuclear Fuel Bank

Congress authorized and appropriated $50 million toward the establishment of an international nuclear fuel bank under IAEA auspices. Such a fuel supply reserve would be aimed at countries that “have made the sovereign choice to develop their civilian nuclear energy industry based on foreign sources of nuclear fuel and therefore have no requirement to develop an indigenous nuclear fuel enrichment capability.”

Conferees on the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill that provided the policy guidance for this contribution noted that “additional work will be required in order to provide appropriate guidance to the executive branch regarding criteria for access by foreign countries to any fuel bank established at the IAEA with materials or funds provided by the United States.”

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei and the United States and other nuclear fuel producers have urged the creation of such a fuel bank in order to deter additional countries from establishing facilities to produce nuclear fuel. They worry that such facilities could lead to additional nuclear weapons proliferation because many of the same facilities used to produce nuclear fuel can also provide the fissile material (highly enriched uranium and plutonium) used in nuclear weapons.

The U.S. contribution would add to $300 million worth of low-enriched uranium (LEU) that Russia pledged last year to a potential fuel bank. (See ACT, October 2007. ) These donations are intended to jump-start an effort by ElBaradei and the private Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) to establish such a fuel bank in order to guarantee that states without fuel-making facilities can turn to the international body if their supplies are cut off for reasons other than commercial disputes or nonproliferation violations. In 2006, U.S. billionaire Warren Buffet offered to donate $50 million through the NTI to establish an LEU stockpile owned and managed by the IAEA under two conditions: that, within two years, one or several IAEA member states contributed an additional $100 million and that the agency took the necessary steps to establish it. (See ACT, November 2006. )

Russia has said that it is in the process of establishing such a facility at Angarsk in Siberia, where it would maintain control of the enrichment technology but allow other countries to participate as investors. It has already signed up Kazakhstan as a participant and is in the middle of negotiating such an agreement with Armenia.

Nikolay Spasskiy, the deputy head of Russia’s nuclear agency, told the Russian news agency RIA Novisti Dec. 11 that “[a]n agreement with the IAEA to establish guaranteed nuclear fuel reserves at the international uranium center in is almost ready and we hope to sign it in the first months of next year.”

Given the movement toward the establishment of such a facility, U.S. lawmakers chose to broaden the potential use of a separate fuel reserve of 17 tons of LEU that the United States had established in 2005, said then to be worth more than $500 million. (See ACT, November 2005. ) Under the legislation, U.S. companies would also be permitted to purchase the fuel in the event of a supply disruption. Previously, the reserve was limited to countries that forgo enrichment and reprocessing.

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