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Bush’s Nuclear Reprocessing Plan Under Fire
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Miles A. Pomper

The Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) program, already under siege, has been further imperiled after recent action by several congressional panels and an April report from the congressional watchdog agency.

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.

Current reprocessing technologies yield pure or nearly pure plutonium that can be used in fuel for nuclear reactors or as 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. Critics note that this fuel would still not be as proliferation resistant as when the spent fuel is left intact.

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.) Capitol Hill appears to be on a similar course this year.

In marking up annual spending legislation for fiscal year 2009, which begins Oct. 1, the House Appropriations Committee June 25 approved only $120 million for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), technology research related to GNEP. In February, the administration had requested $302 million. (See ACT, March 2008.) In its accompanying report, the committee called for these funds to be spent only for research into the reduction of waste streams related to reprocessing, the design of safeguard measures for reprocessing facilities, and research on reducing the proliferation risk of reprocessing. As it did last year, it prohibited any funds from being spent on the design or construction of proposed facilities.

In addition, the House panel blocked the administration’s request for tens of millions in funding directly linked to the partnership including those for smaller or “grid appropriate reactors” and those needed to manage the partnership, particularly efforts to recruit developing countries without nuclear capabilities (such as Ghana, Jordan, and Senegal) to join the partnership. The House panel made a similar cut last year, and ultimately a final House-Senate compromise led to a major cut in proposed funding for the program, although less severe than the House had proposed.

Moreover, the Senate Armed Services Committee May 12 approved a provision in the fiscal year 2009 defense authorization bill that would bar U.S. funds intended for nonproliferation programs from being used for GNEP. A House version of the defense authorization bill passed May 22 likewise would not support the administration’s request for $6.9 million in fiscal 2009 nonproliferation funds to go to GNEP under the auspices of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency under the Department of Energy.

In marking up its bill, the House Armed Services Committee wrote in its accompanying report that “the committee finds NNSA’s proposed nonproliferation arguments for GNEP unpersuasive and is not convinced that GNEP will achieve its stated nonproliferation objectives. Rather, the committee is concerned about proliferation risks associated with GNEP. For these reasons, the committee does not support any funding for GNEP activities from within any NNSA Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program line.” In particular, lawmakers have recently accused the Energy Department of previously and wrongly using nonproliferation funds to support GNEP research in Russia.

GAO Report Challenges GNEP Technology Plans

The committees’ actions came after the watchdog Government Accountability Office (GAO) challenged the administration’s preferred “technology path forward” for the initiative. Energy Department officials said in April that Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman, who had been expected to pick such a path by now, would wait to clearly lay out such a path for the transition to the next administration. Nonetheless, administration officials have been far from shy about indicating their preferences.

An April GAO report, released May 22, took issue with the technology plans for GNEP said to be currently favored by the Energy Department. These plans represented industry proposals that the department had solicited. They call for moving forward in the near future with slight variations of current technology in order to build more economical and commercial-scale facilities. By comparison, the initiative’s original plans called first for building smaller, engineering-scale facilities to research and develop more advanced technologies, then building larger-scale facilities.

The Energy Department’s “accelerated approach of building commercial-scale facilities would likely require using unproven evolutions of existing technologies that would reduce radioactive waste and mitigate proliferation risks to a much lesser degree than anticipated from more advanced technologies,” the report said. It added that the Energy Department “is unlikely to attract enough industry investment to avoid the need for a large amount of government funding for full-scale facilities.”

Therefore, the report recommends that the Energy Department “reassess its preference for an accelerated approach to implementing GNEP.”

The report also found that the engineering approach had its drawbacks. Like the current approach, the engineering-scale approach called for the construction of three types of facilities: a reprocessing plant to separate plutonium and other materials from spent reactor fuel and convert them into a new fuel, an advanced reactor to use the new fuel, and a research and development facility.

The GAO concluded that the Energy Department had erred in planning to build an engineering-scale reprocessing plant before developing the necessary reprocessed-fuel and other technologies that would be needed to know the design specifications for such a plant. The report recommended that the department defer building such a plan until “conducting sufficient testing and development of recycled fuel to ensure that the output of such a plant is suitable for recycling.” In many ways, therefore, the report echoes criticisms made by an influential National Research Council report released last fall. (See ACT, December 2007.)