Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Senate Subcommittee Cuts GNEP—Cites Concerns with Cost, Technology, and Nonproliferation

The Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee approved the FY 2008 Energy and Water Development bill on June 26th, which includes the bulk of funding for nuclear weapons and energy programs. Overall funding for the Senate version of the bill was $32.27 billion, about $1.8 billion above President Bush's budget request.

I previously provided analysis on the nuclear weapons funding, as well as the text on nuclear weapons language from the Committee Report.

Also included in the bill is funding for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a Bush administration proposal that would reinstate commercial nuclear reprocessing in the United States after having abandoned it almost three decades ago. The administration believes that nuclear reprocessing, when uranium and plutonium are separated from waste materials in spent nuclear fuel rods, will reduce the amount of nuclear waste that will need to be placed in a permanent geological repository such as the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

The Senate allocated $242 million toward GNEP. While this is $153 million below the administration’s $405 million budget request, it is also $75 million over the funding that Congress allocated last year. The House only allocated $120 million for GNEP in its version of the bill.

The Committee Report limits GNEP funding to research, development and technology demonstrations at existing facilities, meaning no funds can be used “beyond conceptual design of new facilities.” Overall, the Committee Report directs the Department of Energy to focus less on commercial deployment of reprocessing facilities, and more on demonstrating the technical feasibility as well as a proven safety track record for nuclear reprocessing.

Ranking member on the subcommittee and staunch fan of all-things-nuclear Pete Domenici (R-NM) released a somewhat modest statement to the press on the GNEP funding:

Although I share the President’s desire to address our spent fuel inventories by recycling and reducing this material, I recognize that the new Congressional leadership is seeking a more modest program that can more fully demonstrate the technical and commercial feasibility of closing the nuclear fuel cycle as other countries have done.


The Committee Report, a beast of a document that details the subcommittee’s reasoning for funding on every program, outlined five concerns with nuclear reprocessing: cost, pace, science, technology, and non-proliferation concerns.


Reprocessing is more expensive than purchasing new uranium and making uranium fuel. According to the Guardian Unlimited, officials from Britain’s shut-down Thorp reprocessing facility at Sellafield stated that even when operational the plant did not make money.

There are also serious costs associated with storing the waste that still remains after reprocessing, in addition to the costs associated with cleaning up reprocessing sites after they are decommissioned. The United States stopped reprocessing in 1976 after closing its only operating reprocessing plant at West Valley, New York, where the still on-going clean-up from commercial nuclear waste reprocessing is expected to cost U.S. taxpayers $5.3 billion.


The West Valley plant was shut down in part due to concerns about the underperforming technology. The facility managed to only process one year's worth of nuclear waste although the plant operated for six years, an amount equivalent to about one percent of that which is currently stored at US power plants.

In 2005 Britain shut down its only reprocessing plant after a hazardous leak was discovered. Two years later, a 2007 UK Energy White Paper reported that “The Government has concluded that any nuclear power stations that might be built in the U.K. should proceed on the basis that spent fuel will not be reprocessed." This is after a reopening of the plant scheduled for early 2007 had to be postponed when more technical problems with the facility were discovered.


The Committee Report also states that, “the policy of reinitiating the recycling of spent nuclear fuel in the United States is a significant issue and one that has international implications.” This statement is especially true when considering the non-proliferation concerns associated with nuclear reprocessing.

The separation of fissile materials from nuclear waste presents a serious non-proliferation concern, in that non-nuclear weapons states can use this material to build nuclear weapons. Commercial nuclear reprocessing was abandoned almost three decades ago by the United States due in part to these serious proliferation concerns. North Korea and India have both detonated nuclear weapons made in part with plutonium extracted from reprocessing reactors, demonstrating that the weapons proliferation threat associated with nuclear reprocessing is more than speculation.


Given these concerns, it is no surprise that Congress is hesitant to push full ahead with expanding U.S. reprocessing capabilities. The Committee Report properly concludes, "The administration must come forward with greater scientific, technical, and policy information that examines more alternatives in the fuel cycle and recycling process."


Anonymous said...

It is also important to note that the amount of storage space needed for spent fuel is dependent on the heat it releases, not the volume of the fuel. Reprocessed fuel releases much more heat than spent fuel from a once-through process, and therefore requires more storage space. Though over the long term reprocessing will save a little bit of storage stapce, it's really not a signficiant amount.

Jeff Lindemyer said...

Great point.