Nuclear partnership debated

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By Roger Snodgrass

The Department of Energy’s project to support domestic and international nuclear energy development drew a relatively light response at a public hearing Thursday.

Five people spoke against and one urged full speed ahead.

Sol Golub of the department’s Office of Nuclear Energy gave an overview of the history and issues involved in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) and the matter at hand, a Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement

There was no participation by Los Alamos National Laboratory or Los Alamos county officials or local business leaders, as has been the case in recent nuclear-related hearings. The session was the only GNEP hearing in northern New Mexico in this phase.

Bill Stratton, a member of the Los Alamos Education Group, urged the department to get going before the country is so far behind that it runs out of electricity.

“Stop using the PEIS as a stalking device,” he said “Find a contractor to design the plant and start doing it on a modest scale. One learns by trying. I urge DOE to commence these activities,” he said.

Opponents agreed that the project was too expensive — with no estimate of lifetime costs — and too dangerous in terms of enlarging the sphere of radioactivity and by potentially proliferating weapons-grade nuclear materials.

“Reprocessing is the fundamental link between a nuclear reactor and a plutonium bomb,” said Susan Gordon of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, representing a national network of organizations.

“Irradiated or ‘spent’ fuel is separated into its constituent ingredients usually using acid. One of the ingredients, plutonium can be used to make new reactor fuel – or nuclear bombs.”

The summary document for the proposal anticipated certain “areas of controversy.”

“During the scoping process, concerns were raised relative to nuclear power in general and the alternatives specifically,” the authors wrote. “DOE believes that several of these areas remain of concern and reflect differing points of view or irreducible uncertainties.”

Although the deadline for comments is now set as Dec. 16, Golub said that date was likely to be extended another 60 days.

This PEIS entered the public arena with a preliminary notice in March 2006 and drew some 14,000 comments during a series of scooping meetings a year later.

Since then the scope of the document has changed from one that laid out a vast international program for nuclear services and picked locations for several large facilities.

The new draft no longer evaluates impacts from the international partnership component, and looks at “generic” sites rather than specific locations.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, for example, was one place under consideration the Advanced Fuel Cycle Facility, the proposed central government research center for reprocessing, waste management, safeguards and separation of the radioactive wastes.

Should the proposal advance, site-specific impact statements would be required that take into account the selected location and its activities.

That leaves formidable technical questions at the heart of the current proposal – whether to choose one of the alternative “open fuel cycles” or one of several “closed fuel cycles.”

The difference between open and closed is that in an open fuel cycle, the fuel goes “once through” the reactor and what is left goes to a repository. In the closed cycle, spent fuel from the nuclear reactors is reprocessed for additional use.

“We recognized in 20-20 hindsight that one proposal to close the fuel cycle wasn’t sufficient,” Golub said, in discussing the restructured proposal.

There was also additional feedback from the nuclear industry. Four industrial teams were awarded $34.3 million since September 2007, to provide design studies and technology roadmaps from the business perspective.

Their consolidated report, Golub said, was about “how to make it economical.”

Comments should be sent to:

Mr. Frank Schwartz

U.S. Department of Energy

Office of Nuclear Energy – NE-5

1000 Independence Ave.

Washington, D.C. 20585

Fax: 866-645-7807

More information including the entire study, reports and documentation is on the Web: www.gnep.energy.gov