DOE revises nuclear reprocessing plans

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Department of Energy has opened a period of public comment on a plan to support a national and international global expansion of nuclear energy.

The proposal consists of two complimentary initiatives.

One has to do with providing a “reliable international nuclear fuel services program,” which the United States and other countries with advanced nuclear programs would offer to emerging nuclear states that agree not to pursue enrichment or recycling facilities to make their own nuclear fuel.

Another aspect has to do with developing “proliferation resistant” nuclear reactors that could be used by these developing countries.

A new round of public meetings will begin across the county next month, a year later than planned, to discuss an initial version of the project that was sounded out around the country in early 2007.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), as it is assessed in a Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), that is now available.

The Los Alamos public meeting, one of 13 in nine states and Washington, D.C., is scheduled for 7 p.m. Nov. 20 in the Hilltop House Best Western. A meeting will also be held in Roswell, N.M. on Nov. 18.

“This will be an opportunity for the community to hear from scientists about the program and ask questions,” a spokesperson for the Department of Energy said Monday.

The programmatic impact statement has changed somewhat after the initial scoping period. The document no longer proposes to pick a site for an advanced fuel cycle research facility, for which Los Alamos National Laboratory was in the running, along with several other weapons research laboratories. The locations for a nuclear fuel recycling center and advanced recycling reactor have also been removed from the analysis.

Based on comments received after the scoping sessions, the announcement in the Federal Register states, “DOE determined that to make project specific or site-specific decisions regarding any of the three originally proposed facilities would be premature.”

The assessment is now focused on describing the impact of six technological alternatives for reprocessing, emphasizing departures from the current practice.

In variations on a “closed cycle” that the plan is exploring, nuclear fuel from commercial reactors is processed to provide another cycle of nuclear energy production. The reprocessing reduces the volume and radioactivity of the fuel that must be disposed and therefore, according to the proposal, increases the waste-carrying capacity of a geological repository like Yucca.

The closed cycle is also supposed to address proliferation concerns about the availability of weapons grade nuclear material available to emerging nuclear states around the world, by establishing an international framework for controlling the risks. These risks have been epitomized in the ongoing international dispute with Iran, which claims to be enriching uranium for legitimate purpose. But its actions can also be interpreted as enriching uranium for potential use in nuclear weapons.

The GNEP plan has been promoted by the Department of Energy, which recently counted 21 countries, including several Middle Eastern states, ready to join the partnership.

But Congress cut funds for GNEP in 2007 and 2008, and the House of Representatives proposed cutting off funding altogether for 2009.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences Report issued last October said the reprocessing technologies under review were still too early in development to justify major investments.

LANL has been engaged in “confirmatory research” related to GNEP, a spokesman said Monday.

In a presentation to state legislators at the end of August, LANL researchers described a study of materials mixtures containing special nuclear materials produced in several different advanced fuel cycles, demonstrating that the “attractiveness” levels of the processed fuels may remain the same, improve or decline, depending on the reprocessing scheme that is used.

At least one anti-nuclear community dismissed the new GNEP plan outright.

“The Draft PEIS has already faced serious criticism due to its failure to provide any cost analysis and fully address environmental and security concerns, failure to select a specific site for a reprocessing complex, and unsubstantiated claims that reprocessing reduces the need for a geologic repository,” according to a statement by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, released shortly after DOE’s announcement.