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FYI Number 109: November 1, 2007

NRC Committee Highly Critical of Administration GNEP Nuclear Energy Plan

The conclusion drawn by a National Research Council committee regarding a major Bush Administration nuclear energy initiative is unambiguous. Said the committee: "All committee members agree that the GNEP program should not go forward and that it should be replaced by a less aggressive research program."

Ninety minutes before the document's release on October 29, DOE Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon took issue with most of the report's GNEP (Global Nuclear Energy Partnership) findings, saying there was a "fundamental misconception" regarding the Administration's intentions. Contrary to what the report stated, remarked Spurgeon, the Secretary of Energy will not decide in June 2008 about what spent fuel recycling process to employ, or the site, size and construction timing of a reprocessing plant.

Robert Fri of Resources for the Future chaired the Committee on Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program. Its seventeen members were drawn from the academic, private, and federal sectors. The Office of Management and Budget requested the study. The report, "Review of DOE's Nuclear Energy Research and Development Program," can be accessed at www.nap.edu

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was but one of DOE's nuclear R&D programs reviewed in the 207 page report. The report has other findings and recommendations on the Nuclear Power 2010 program, the Next Generation Nuclear Plant, the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative, and the Idaho National Laboratory. Its GNEP findings and recommendations are likely to attract the most attention on Capitol Hill, where members of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittees will be deciding in coming months how much money GNEP should receive this fiscal year. The Bush Administration requested $395 million for GNEP, which is 45 percent of the request for DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy. Further information on GNEP can be found on DOE's website at http://www.gnep.energy.gov/default.html

The NRC report discusses GNEP in both the summary and a 20-page chapter. The chapter explains that DOE has been conducting reprocessing R&D since 2002 under its Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative. In DOE's FY 2007 request, this program was made an activity under the department's GNEP initiative. The committee found the new policy created change and uncertainty, and noted that "one effect of this uncertainty is to make more difficult the acquisition of clear and complete program documentation." The committee drew on interviews with a wide variety of government and private industry individuals, including Under Secretary Spurgeon.

A major criticism that Spurgeon made of the report's GNEP analysis was that the committee seemed to focus only on one reprocessing technology, UREX+1a. This is what the committee wrote: "The DOE has proposed that the CFTC [centralized fuel treatment center] be able to handle 2,000 to 3,000 metric tons (MT) per year of spent fuel. . . . . At the time of the writing of this report, the latest information the committee had was that the baseline process was UREX+1a, although some other comparable separation technology, most notably pyroprocessing, may be adopted at a later stage." Later in this section, the committee wrote regarding next June's decision, "A DOE Secretarial decision on the future of GNEP - whether to conduct more R&D or proceed to commercial scale - is scheduled for June 2008."

The NRC committee spotlighted a number of problems it has with GNEP. Regarding GNEP's impact on reducing the amount of nuclear waste to be placed in a repository, the report states: "the committee concludes that the need for an accelerated program to deploy commercial-scale reprocessing and fast reactors to reduce the nuclear waste repository burden has not been established."

The committee also has concerns about GNEP technology, writing, "In the committee's view, the GNEP concept rests on a set of technologies that present very challenging development and engineering issues. Moreover, it is not clear that all of the relevant options had been evaluated before arriving at the program's preferred choices." The report comments that "DOE is currently examining two methods for recycling nuclear fuel that do not isolate plutonium: UREX (in effect, a collection of methods) and pyroprocessing." The committee concludes: "Significant technical problems remain to be solved before either process can be considered to have been successfully demonstrated." Regarding other processes, the report states, "The committee has seen no evidence that GNEP has explored those options."

The report also describes concerns regarding GNEP program design and scheduling. It states: "The committee thus concludes that the case presented by the promoters of GNEP for an accelerated schedule for commercial construction is unwise. In general, the committee believes that the schedule should be guided by technical progress in the R&D program. If and when technical progress justifies construction of a major facility, it is the very strong view of this committee than an engineering-scale facility is by far the safest, most effective, and least risky course."

It is important to note that the committee is not opposed to R&D on reprocessing: "In short, all committee members agree that the GNEP program should not go forward and that it should be replaced by a less aggressive research program. Nonetheless, it believes that a research program similar to the original AFCI [Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative] is worth pursuing for three reasons: to extend uranium resources (when and if this need arises), to greatly reduce the long-lived, high-level actinides in nuclear wastes, and to improve the waste forms for disposal of high-level nuclear waste."

The chapter concludes: "DOE should defer the Secretarial decision, now scheduled for [June] 2008, which the committee believes is not credible. Moreover, if it makes this decision in the future, DOE should target construction of new technologies at most at an engineering scale. DOE should commission an independent peer review of the state of the knowledge as a prerequisite to any Secretarial decision on future research programs. In summary, the committee concludes that without first demonstrating relevant technologies at an engineering scale, there are unacceptably high financial and technical risks to commercial-scale construction of a separations facility and a fast burner reactor."

In his remarks regarding the report, Spurgeon disagreed with the presumption that DOE is moving in haste. He stated DOE understands the complexity of spent fuel reprocessing and use, adding that it will take decades to develop a fast burner reactor. What is needed, he contended, was a resolution on how to handle spent fuel. Spurgeon acknowledged that international support for GNEP was stronger than that in the United States, and admitted that a better job could be done of building support for the partnership. He remarked that there was "more than one way to close the fuel cycle." He also said DOE agreed that end-to-end testing of GNEP's various components was needed before moving to a commercial scale facility. Next June's Secretarial decision would center on how to best carry the program forward, and not the selection of a process, Spurgeon said.

Many of the points made by the NRC committee members were also made by the members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees in the reports they issued this summer (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/095.html.) The House report stated: "The Committee supports continued research on advanced fuel cycles, including the development of technologies for recycling spent nuclear fuel. However, the Committee does not support the Department's rushed, poorly-defined, expansive, and expensive Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) proposal. There is no compelling urgency to reach a decision point in the summer of 2008, nor is there urgency to begin the development of commercial-scale recycling facilities. Further research is required before the U.S. should commit the magnitude of funding proposed under the GNEP initiative." The Senate report had similar language: "The Committee notes that the Department seems to have decided on a recycling pathway that consists of the UREX+ separations technology and sodium cooled advanced burner reactors. Many feel the decision to down-select to these technologies was made too soon. The Committee directs the Department to support a broader technology research and development program that better defines the technical requirements, validates the proliferation resistance and demonstrates the commercial feasibility of various recycling technologies."

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

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