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FYI Number 70 : May 24 , 2006

House Appropriations Committee Report Language: GNEP

There is extensive - and quite critical - language in the FY 2007 report of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee regarding the Administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) initiative. Chairman David Hobson (R-OH), Ranking Minority Member Peter Visclosky (D-IN), and their colleagues are quite supportive of nuclear energy, and favor the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, but fault the Department of Energy's approach to GNEP and the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

The GNEP initiative has attracted considerable attention, with authorization and appropriations hearings in the House and Senate, and public appearances by senior DOE officials. While many Members are supportive of nuclear energy, there is much less consensus that GNEP is the correct approach. Moving forward with this proposal will require significant funding, and House appropriators are less than completely happy about GNEP, with Hobson saying he has "serious policy, technical, and financial reservations" about it. DOE officials have estimated that GNEP could cost $3 - $6 billion in the first five years. The Administration requested $250 million for GNEP for FY 2007; House appropriators cut this amount in H.R. 5427 by $96 million. Senate appropriators are likely to take a different course since Pete Domenici (R-NM), a strong supporter of nuclear energy, has said he will fully fund GNEP, and look for additional money for the initiative.

Selections from House Report 109-474 follow outlining the subcommittee's views. In the interest of space, not all language is included on topics such as University Reactor Infrastructure and Education Assistance, and Nuclear Energy Research and Development (including an extensive discussion of the UREX+ process demonstration.) See http://thomas.loc.gov/, and request House Committee report 109-174 in "Committee Reports" to view this language.

"The Department requests $250,000,000 for a major new initiative called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). This initiative would address the challenges of spent fuel disposal, nuclear nonproliferation, and growth in nuclear energy through the application of advanced technologies to recycle spent nuclear fuel. The Committee strongly endorses the concept of recycling spent nuclear fuel. Continuing the once-through fuel cycle not only would waste much of the energy content of spent fuel and leave an environmental legacy of radioactive materials, some of them useable in nuclear weapons, but will require the construction of eight more Yucca-sized repositories by the end of the century (assuming nuclear energy continues to supply twenty percent of the nation's electricity needs).

"However, the Committee has serious reservations about GNEP as proposed by the Administration. The overriding concern is simply that the Department of Energy has failed to provide sufficient detailed information to enable Congress to understand fully all aspects of this initiative, including the cost, schedule, technology development plan, and waste streams from GNEP. GNEP in some ways addresses Congressional direction with respect to Integrated Spent Fuel Recycling given in the Statement of Managers accompanying the Conference Report on Energy and Water Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2006, but the GNEP proposal differs in several significant aspects from what the conferees directed last year, and the GNEP proposal falls short in a number of critical areas:

"Integration of Recycling Facilities - Congress provided funding in fiscal year 2006 for DOE to begin the competitive selection of sites willing to host integrated spent fuel recycling facilities. Integration is critical to address nonproliferation and security concerns, keeping sensitive materials and sensitive facilities within a secure perimeter and minimizing offsite transportation of special nuclear materials. Unfortunately, the Department has ignored this key concept of integration. The Request for Expressions of Interest for GNEP (solicitation DE-RP07-06ID14760) only mentions three facilities: one for the separation of usable elements from waste products in spent fuel, one for the conversion of transuranics, and an advanced fuel cycle facility. There is no mention of the requirement that these facilities be integrated or co-located at a single site, nor (as is detailed below) is there any mention of the need for interim storage as part of an integrated recycling complex.

"Interim Storage - In the Committee's view, any such integrated spent fuel recycling facility must be capable of accumulating sufficient volumes of spent fuel to provide efficient operation of the facility. A first test of any site's willingness to host such a facility is its willingness to receive into interim storage spent fuel in dry casks that provide safe storage of spent fuel for 50 to 100 years or longer. In this Committee's view, if any site refuses to provide interim storage as needed to support the operation of an integrated recycling facility, at whatever scale, then that site should be eliminated from all further consideration under GNEP. As noted above, the Department failed to include any requirement for interim storage in its Request for Expressions of Interest for hosting GNEP facilities. Further, the Department failed to include any language regarding interim storage in its legislative proposal that was submitted to Congress on April 5, 2006.

"Resolution of the spent fuel problem cannot wait for the many years required for the GNEP to proceed through comprehensive planning, engineering demonstration, NRC licensing of the recycling plant, any new reactor types such as fast reactors, and each new recycled fuel type, and ultimate operations. The credibility of the Administration's support for the future of the nuclear power industry rests on its resolution of the issues associated with taking custody of spent fuel and opening a permanent geologic repository for high-level nuclear waste (Yucca Mountain), as required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. GNEP will not be ready to begin large-scale recycling of commercial spent fuel until the end of the next decade, and the Yucca Mountain repository will not open until roughly the same time. Such delays are acceptable only if accompanied by interim storage beginning this decade.

"Inclusion of Fast Reactors - When Congress provided funding in fiscal year 2006 for Integrated Spent Fuel Recycling, Congress understood integrated recycling to involve four steps: an advanced separation technology such as UREX+ that would not yield separated plutonium, fabrication of new mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for use in commercial light water power reactors thereby recycling any plutonium containing product of UREX+, vitrification of waste products, and interim storage of spent fuel to support the recycling process. GNEP envisions a very different process, using fast burner reactors to destroy more completely the plutonium and other actinides in the spent fuel. While such an approach may be desirable from a technical perspective, the inclusion of fast reactors adds significant cost, time, and risk to the recycling effort. The Department has failed to provide any comparison of the relative costs and benefits of the two approaches to convince Congress, and the public, that UREX+ coupled with fast reactors is the best approach to recycling spent fuel.

"Linkage to Yucca Mountain - Unfortunately, it appears that the Department has decided to put its emphasis on GNEP and put Yucca Mountain on the back burner. That choice is unacceptable to the Committee. The Yucca Mountain repository is essential regardless of whether GNEP is successful or the United States retains a policy of a once-through nuclear fuel cycle, and the Committee fully supports proceeding to construct and operate this repository. The latest schedule from the Department of Energy has a license application for construction being filed in fiscal year 2008, construction start three to four years later and disposal of commercial spent fuel sometime near the end of the next decade. This is a seven-year delay from the schedule just two years ago. During the delay, the Department has estimated that it will incur added costs of $500 million per year in liabilities to the nuclear utilities for the Department's failure to begin accepting commercial spent fuel. As noted above, this delay is acceptable only if accompanied by centralized interim storage in the near term. Furthermore, the Department has estimated that it will include an additional $500 million per year in costs to protect and manage its own wastes that are destined to be placed in Yucca Mountain. The Committee is reluctant to embark on any new initiative that has the potential to produce significant chemical and radioactive waste streams.

"Inadequate Information on Waste Streams and Life Cycle Costs - The cost estimates for construction and commissioning of the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) have gone from $4.3 billion to over $11 billion in just three years, and are still not yet well established. This plant is designed to process the high-level radioactive waste derived from past reprocessing activities. The Department has failed to produce a complete accounting of the estimated volumes, composition, and disposition of the waste streams that will be involved in GNEP. The Department has also failed to produce even the most rudimentary estimate of the life-cycle costs of GNEP. Before the Department can expect the Congress to fund a major new initiative, the Department should provide Congress with a complete and credible estimate of the life-cycle costs of the program.

"Future of Nuclear Energy - At present, 103 civilian light-water nuclear reactors generate twenty percent of the nation's electricity. The generation process produces no greenhouse gases, is carefully regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and rate payers pay into the Nuclear Waste Fund for the permanent disposal of spent reactor fuel. However, the current fleet of reactors are generally one-third to half way through their expected operating lifetimes. To retain this component of our domestic energy supply, even at the twenty percent level, the United States will have to reach a consensus supporting the construction of dozens of new nuclear reactors. Delays in opening the Yucca Mountain repository cast a shadow over the future of nuclear energy, as it is doubtful that the NRC will be able to license new reactors without a clear disposal path for the spent fuel those reactors will generate. Unfortunately, the timeline for commercial-scale implementation of GNEP is too far off in the future to assist with licensing new reactors in the next decade. The Department has chosen, unwisely in this Committee's view, to seek legislation that would eliminate the availability of disposal space in a permanent repository as a consideration for NRC in licensing new reactors. Aggressive development of the initial Yucca Mountain repository, coupled with either expansion of Yucca's capacity or development of additional repositories, would be a responsible solution to the waste confidence question. The provision of centralized interim storage, so that the Department could begin moving spent fuel away from commercial reactor sites, would also be a responsible alternative. Attempting to legislate away the waste confidence problem is not.

"The concept of recycling spent nuclear fuel has real promise, with benefits both domestically and internationally. However, the Committee recognizes that implementation of advanced recycling on any significant scale is at least a decade or more in the future. The Department has yet to submit a compelling and complete justification for the $250,000,000 request for GNEP in fiscal year 2007. Therefore, the Committee supports a more modest effort on GNEP, continued emphasis on Yucca Mountain, and renewed emphasis on the provision of centralized interim storage. Specific guidance on this issue is provided in the sections of the report dealing with the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative and with Nuclear Waste Disposal."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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