The Department of Energy last month announced it had ended a key part of the Bush administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) but said it is "considering options" for continuing the effort's international component.
GNEP sought to promote nuclear power in the United States and around the world while developing new types of spent fuel reprocessing plants and fast-neutron reactors. A main focus of GNEP, which was launched in early 2006, was an effort to speed the deployment of a commercial-scale reprocessing plant in the United States.
But in an April 15 statement, the Energy Department said it is "no longer pursuing near-term commercial demonstration projects." Deputy Press Secretary Jen Stutsman issued the statement in response to a question from the magazine Nuclear Engineering International, which posted excerpts from the statement on its Web site.
The fiscal year 2009 omnibus appropriations bill provides $145 million for the Energy Department's Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, a research and development program that preceded GNEP and then served as its technology development arm. The funding bill specifies that the research effort should be focused on "proliferation resistant fuel cycles and waste reduction strategies." Secretary of Energy Steven Chu also has made clear that he views reprocessing as a subject of long-term research, rather than a near-term domestic option.
GNEP's push for near-term commercial deployment had been one of the most heavily criticized parts of the controversial program on Capitol Hill.
The program's recruitment of international partners-more than 20 countries have signed GNEP's statement of principles-also drew criticism in Congress, but the Energy Department indicated it sees some value in that part of the program or a variation of it. The department "is considering options for advancing the Administration's nonproliferation and energy priorities through its participation in the international activities of GNEP," according to the April 15 statement.
The Obama administration has supported a global expansion of nuclear energy in conjunction with an international "fuel bank," a mechanism to provide assured supplies of fuel so that countries have less reason to pursue domestic programs for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. President Barack Obama made that connection in his April 5 speech in Prague, saying that the fuel bank will allow countries to "access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation." He added, "We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change and to advance opportunity for all people."
Gregory Schulte, U.S. permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, specifically cited the international work under GNEP in remarks to an April 20-22 nuclear conference in Beijing. Schulte, who delivered the remarks on behalf of Chu, said, "We need to take full advantage of these and other exchanges to seek solutions and innovations to bring about the new framework proposed by President Obama."
Meanwhile, some U.S. utilities are exploring the so-called closed fuel cycle, which involves spent fuel reprocessing and fabrication of new fuel from the reprocessed material, in spite of the drop-off in government support for the idea. U.S. industry sources said a group has been in discussions about obtaining plutonium now stored in Europe and having the material fabricated into fuel in Europe for a demonstration program in U.S. reactors.
The plutonium would be made into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides. Conventional nuclear fuel-the kind used in all current U.S. reactors-is made from uranium oxide.
Top officials from AREVA, the French nuclear company, confirmed that they are in talks with U.S. utilities about a MOX demonstration program in the United States. AREVA owns and operates facilities covering all parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, including MOX fabrication.
One of the AREVA officials said there are several outstanding issues, including the price. A large part of the cost would be for the transportation of the MOX assemblies from Europe to the United States, he said.