Key GNEP Decision Left to Next President

Miles A. Pomper

With its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) already facing resistance from Congress, the Bush administration has decided to leave to the next president key decisions affecting the domestic leg of the controversial program.

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

 Congress has largely sided with the critics and last year sharply cut the administration's proposed budget for the program and restricted it to research. (See ACT, January/February 2008.)

Current reprocessing technologies yield pure or nearly pure plutonium that can be used in fuel for nuclear reactors or to provide fissile material for nuclear weapons. GNEP proposes to build facilities that would retain other elements in the spent fuel along with the plutonium, making it less attractive for weapons production than pure plutonium. But critics note that this fuel would still not be as proliferation resistant as if the spent fuel were left intact.

In April 10 testimony before the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary of energy for nuclear energy, said that Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman would put off to the next administration a key decision, previously expected for this summer. Bodman had been set to pick a "technology path forward" for the program that could lead to the construction of reprocessing-related facilities.

"I would look to the end of this year and this being more of a transition document that would be the secretary's recommendation as to ‘This is where we are and this is how I think we ought to proceed,'" Spurgeon said. "But by no means are we going to be in a position to recommend any major demonstration-scale facilities or their construction at this time."

In particular, Spurgeon said that Bodman did not plan to make a decision on whether to build a nuclear fuel reprocessing center or a prototype fast reactor. Fast reactors rely on "fast neutrons" to fission plutonium and other elements in the spent fuel. These neutrons differ from "thermal neutrons" that have been slowed down by a moderator in a reactor, such as the water used in many North American nuclear plants that rely on fresh uranium fuel.

Spurgeon said that if a reactor were built, it would "very likely" be financed by an international partnership that included France and Japan. In February, the three countries signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate in the development of prototype sodium-cooled fast reactors.

In the meantime, the Department of Energy is looking to gather more information about the cost, feasibility, and technical aspects of the proposed plants. A March 28 press release said that the department had awarded $18.3 million to four industry teams to further develop plans for the facilities. In addition, Spurgeon said that the department hoped to offer more definitive plans by this summer for constructing a new research and development facility for all nuclear fuels, including those that would be used in fast reactors.

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