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FYI Number 108: August 30, 2006

Science Committee Gives Qualified Support for Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plan

As described in FYI #107, the House Science Committee has passed and sent to the floor H.R. 5656, the Energy Research, Development, Demonstration and Commercial Application Act of 2006. This legislation generally supports the Administration's goal for an advanced nuclear fuel cycle, but also demonstrates members' concerns that aspects of the plan "are not sufficiently developed for Congress to act upon."

HR. 5656 has fairly specific language in Section 4 on an "advanced nuclear fuel cycle technologies research, development, and demonstration plan" calling for the Energy Secretary to "develop a comprehensive modeling and simulation capability to enable a thorough analysis of possible advanced nuclear fuel cycle systems." The resulting plan would then be reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. However, under "Prohibition" the bill states: "The Secretary shall not initiate detailed design or construction of any demonstration facility that is capable of processing 750 kilograms or more per year of nuclear fuel or spent nuclear fuel and that is designed to demonstrate the advanced nuclear fuel system component technologies . . . until 90 days after the report . . . [containing the NAS report and DOE's reaction to it] has been transmitted to Congress." House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert called this an "amber light" to proceed.

The House Science Committee report accompanying this bill describes the committee's thinking:

"Section 4. Advanced Fuel Cycle Technologies for Nuclear Power. The Committee supports the President's vision for U.S. leadership in developing advanced nuclear power technologies. The Committee is concerned, however, that DOE's proposed RD&D activities for advanced nuclear fuel cycle technologies included under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) initiative are not sufficiently developed for Congress to act upon. In particular, the Committee is concerned that DOE has selected specific advanced nuclear fuel cycle technologies for large-scale, expensive demonstrations, including fast reactors and fuel fabrication facilities, without conducting the necessary analysis and without consulting a sufficiently wide range of technical experts.

"A program of the size and scope that is proposed in DOE's fiscal year 2007 budget request requires rigorous justification of technology choices based on a comprehensive analysis of the entire fuel cycle. For example, DOE appears to have chosen a fast reactor to carry the entire transmutation burden in an advanced fuel cycle. Experts within and outside of DOE have estimated that such a fuel cycle could require one fast reactor to every three or four thermal reactors. The Committee has concerns about the commercial viability of such a reactor fleet. In addition to considering a range of fast reactor designs, the Committee expects DOE to consider the role of advanced thermal reactors that could be capable of carrying some of the transmutation burden at lower cost.

"The Committee believes that an open process of broad consultation is essential for a major initiative, such as the nuclear power technology RD&D components of the GNEP initiative, to succeed. A systematic process for seeking input from technical experts, industry, other entities and individuals interested in an expansion of domestic nuclear power would provide confidence to the Committees of jurisdiction in Congress that DOE's proposal for multi-billion dollar capital investments in large-scale engineering demonstration projects has been widely vetted.

"For the future, the Committee believes that DOE should develop an ongoing long-range planning and prioritization process for nuclear energy RD&D modeled on planning and prioritization processes used by the Office of Science and other Federal science agencies, for science programs that require large-scale, complex RD&D facilities. Any such planning process should include a periodic review by an independent body, such as the NAS. The Committee suggests that, at an appropriate time after the NAS review required by this legislation, DOE consider entering into an arrangement with the NAS to conduct a decadal survey, such as those conducted for astronomy and other physical sciences sub-disciplines, of RD&D priorities for nuclear energy.

"The Committee does not intend for the prohibition in subsection (d) [as quoted above in paragraph two] to limit R&D or conceptual design work on any aspect of nuclear power technology. Nor does the Committee intend to slow or prevent progress on the Uranium Extraction plus (UREX+) demonstration facility, provided that such a demonstration is truly at engineering scale - that is, the minimum size required to predict with confidence all physical processes controlling the performance of a full-scale industrial facility. The Committee understands from a number of experts that an appropriate scale for such a facility is one with the capacity to process approximately 20-25 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel per year."

House and Senate appropriators have included report language on nuclear fuel reprocessing in the FY 2007 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bills. The House Appropriations Committee report language can be read at http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/070.html. The Senate language is provided at http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/090.html. Note that House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) said of the H.R. 5656 advanced fuel cycle provision at the committee mark up: "This language will probably end up moving on the floor separately from the rest of this bill, but we thought it was mportant to put the Committee on record on this program."

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

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