Talk on Thursday focuses on plutonium reprocessing

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By Roger Snodgrass

There are currently several nails in the coffin of a nuclear policy that has strongly favored commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium. Ivan Oelrich wants to make sure it doesn’t pop open again.

A recurring idea in the political tug-of-war between proponents and opponents of nuclear energy, nuclear reprocessing is intended to achieving a plutonium fuel cycle, and thereby provide a plentiful supply of nuclear fuel and a more easily-stored waste product.

Oelrich is the Acting President of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). He will be speaking Thursday at a public meeting of the Los Alamos Committee on Arms Control and International Security.

In a recent telephone interview, Oelrich said that during the Bush administration, the president pushed the reprocessing idea, changing the name to plutonium “recycling,” but Congress gradually withdrew support.

“DOE wasn’t able to convince the Congress that they had a credible story,” said Oelrich

In the Obama administration, on the other hand, some members of Congress have become interested in reprocessing again, while the president is likely to remain opposed.

“I’m not willing to say it’s a bad idea, but it is a bad idea for the next 50 years or so,” Oelrich said.

“At the Federation of American Scientists, we’re not for or against nuclear power, as long as it is safe and economical and there is a waste solution,” he said. “We do believe that you have to solve the proliferation issue, however.”

Oelrich said current reactors are not designed for and don’t efficiently use up the plutonium.

“There is plenty of uranium that we can store above ground din dry casks,” he said. “If you are going to build breeder reactors, it would be better to wait to use that spent fuel in an efficient system. It will be easier and cooler, cheaper to process and less dangerous.”

Many proponents point to the French experience as a model, but Oelrich said the French are building up huge stocks of plutonium that they don’t have a way to use.

“They have 80 tons of separated plutonium stored in vaults above the ground,” he said. The British have 100 tons.”

The Obama administration has now shifted the program more fully into a research project. The Bush Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, enrolled a number of members in an organization of nuclear power states that would rely upon the United States to supply the fuel for an advanced fleet of reactors.

Asked about the implications of the change for the foreign partners who signed on to the plan, a Department of Energy spokesperson emailed a prepared reply.

“The Department of Energy has restructured its fuel cycle R&D efforts to focus on long-term, science-based R&D of advanced, proliferation-resistant nuclear fuel cycle and waste management technologies,” wrote Jen Stutsman, DOE deputy press secretary. “The Department’s Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative will not be pursuing near-term commercial demonstration projects, which were the focus of the domestic component of GNEP under the previous administration.

She added.  “The FY2010 budget request includes $192 million for a Fuel Cycle R&D program that is focused on this long-term, science-based research and development that could help meet non-proliferation and climate goals and maintain the country’s national nuclear energy infrastructure.

“The Department is continuing to consider options for advancing the Administration’s nonproliferation and energy priorities through its participation in the international activities of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).”

“I understand there are a lot of people who know a lot about this (at Los Alamos),” Oelrich said.

Oelrich has spoken on this subject on the Hill.

“I’ve talked on this many times,” he said. “I don’t have a set speech, but I specialize the talk for the audience.

Oelrich will speak at 7 p.m Thursday in Graves Hall, United Church, 2525 Canyon Rd.