President George W. Bush’s fiscal 2009 budget request, unveiled Feb. 4, calls for a significant increase in funding for two controversial administration nuclear efforts: the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and a new mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel facility at Savannah River, South Carolina. The administration made the request despite the fact that Congress significantly cut funds for both programs last year and key lawmakers continue to express skepticism about the initiatives.
Administration officials have claimed that GNEP, which seeks to develop new nuclear technologies and new international nuclear fuel arrangements, will reduce nuclear waste and decrease the risk that anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide could spur nuclear weapons proliferation. Critics assert that the administration’s course would exacerbate the proliferation risks posed by the spread of reprocessing technology, be prohibitively expensive, and fail to ease waste disposal challenges significantly without any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed. Many of these concerns have been echoed by U.S. lawmakers, but the administration has continued to sign up international partners: Senegal joined Feb. 1 and the United Kingdom joined Feb. 26, becoming the 20th and 21st members.
GNEP calls for research on new reprocessing technologies that administration officials say will not yield pure separated plutonium but rather a mixture that includes plutonium and is less applicable to making bombs. GNEP further calls for construction of new advanced burner reactors to make use of the reprocessed fuel. These “fast reactors” would burn plutonium as well as other elements in the spent fuel, rather than the uranium used to fuel today’s power reactors. The administration also claims that using such facilities 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. He also requested $20 million for the development of smaller-scale reactors aimed at developing countries with “smaller and less developed power grids.”
Bush requested $302 million for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), the technology arm of GNEP, for fiscal year 2009, which begins Oct. 1.
In response, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, called GNEP “ill-conceived” and said the proposed budget “raises serious concerns.”
Last year, Bush had requested $395 million for AFCI. But lawmakers cut that request by more than half, allocating only $179 million for the current fiscal year. Congress also chose to limit the program to research, blocking any expenditures for constructing commercial facilities or technology demonstration projects. Congress reached that decision after a National Research Council report concluded that the Department of Energy should return to a “less aggressive research program.” (See ACT, January/February 2008 and December 2007. )
Nonetheless, in Feb. 5 remarks at a nuclear energy industry forum, Assistant Secretary of Energy Dennis Spurgeon gave little indication that the administration had abandoned its plans to move forward quickly with demonstration projects or commercial facilities.
Citing four industry studies commissioned by the Energy Department in September 2007, Spurgeon said that “there are sound economic cases for deployment of near-term recycling [reprocessing] technology, but changes in current waste strategies are needed.”
Spurgeon also suggested that the studies backed a proposal he mooted before Congress in November 2007. That proposal would sidestep annual budget battles with Congress by allowing GNEP to dip into a pool of money that has accumulated from a fee Congress has imposed on nuclear power plant operators to pay for disposing of spent fuel. Last year, Spurgeon said that the U.S. government had 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. Waste is currently piling up at nuclear power plants.
In a briefing to Congress explaining the Energy Department’s nuclear energy budget request, Spurgeon suggested the operation of a “new government entity,” a nonprofit corporation that would be responsible for selling recycled fuels and uranium to utilities as well as collecting waste fees. He also indicated that the current $1 per megawatt-hour waste fee on nuclear power might be increased to sustain this new entity.
Spurgeon told the nuclear industry forum that “[a]lthough these actions require significant changes to legislation and regulations, addressing the waste issue is paramount to a successful nuclear renaissance.”
Spurgeon said that Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman planned to move ahead later this year with a decision on a “technology path forward” for GNEP. He said the industry studies propose different technological approaches to reprocessing. Some favor COEX, a process that extracts and precipitates uranium and plutonium (and possibly neptunium) together so that plutonium is never separated on its own. Other industry studies favor a pyroprocessing technology similar to that being studied by South Korea. Critics have said that neither technology would provide sufficient protection against conversion into nuclear weapons. (See ACT, January/February 2008. )
The scale and expense of the proposed reprocessing facilities and fast reactors vary substantially, Spurgeon said. He added that the studies proposed initial operation of the reprocessing facilities to begin between 2018 and 2028 and that prototype fast reactors would be deployed between 2018 and 2025.
Bush also called for spending $487 million for the new Savannah River facility and related efforts. The new facility will mix weapons-grade plutonium with depleted uranium to make new MOX fuel for nuclear reactors. Last year, the administration requested nearly $432 million for the facility and related costs, but lawmakers only appropriated a total of $279 million.
The administration’s budget request also includes $119 million toward efforts to disassemble plutonium pits from weapons so the material can be mixed into MOX fuel. This total includes spending $27 million toward final design efforts for a pit conversion and disassembly facility at Savannah River, $40 million to start construction of a related facility to solidify liquid wastes from that effort, and $52 million (up from $13 million in current spending) to operate a demonstration pit conversion and disassembly facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
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, potential proliferation risks, and the failure of Russia to move forward on its end of the deal. (See ACT, April 2007 .)
Lawmakers last year 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, January/February 2008 and December 2007 .) They redirected 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. The administration only asked for $1 million for the Russian effort in its recent budget request.