Panel Urges End to Nuke Waste Proposal

The Associated Press: Panel Urges End to Nuke Waste Proposal

By H. JOSEF HEBERT – 10 hours ago

WASHINGTON (AP) — A panel of the National Academy of Sciences urged President Bush on Monday to abandon an ambitious plan to resume nuclear waste reprocessing that is the heart of the administration’s push to expand the civilian use of nuclear power.

A 17-member panel of the Academy’s National Research Council said the proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, has not been adequately peer reviewed and is banking on reprocessing technology that hasn’t been proven, or isn’t expected to be ready in the time the administration envisions.

The report, released Monday, said GNEP research is taking money and focus away from other nuclear research programs and efforts to speed the construction of new nuclear power plants.

“All committee members agree that the GNEP program should not go forward and that it should be replaced by a less aggressive research program,” said the panel. It said if the administration proceeds as planned there will be “significant technical and financial risks.”

Bush announced the global nuclear initiative in early 2006 and has repeatedly touted it as key to U.S. efforts to deal with a growing amount of highly radioactive reactor waste and still allow a large expansion of commercial nuclear power. Internationally, the plan envisions a small number of countries including the United States and Russia supplying other nations with reactor fuel and reprocessing their used fuel.

Only last week, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman cited the importance of the GNEP program. He said in a speech it “represents the future of global nuclear power cooperation” and will “allow for a greater global reliance on civilian nuclear power to produce the electricity needed” while safeguarding against proliferation.

The Academy panel said it did not address the pros and cons of the international aspects of the GNEP program, but expressed deep reservations about its ability to address the U.S. waste disposal issue.

Dennis Spurgeon, the Energy Department’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said a positive element of the science panel’s review was that most of the members accepted the need to “close the fuel cycle” and continued research into nuclear fuel reprocessing at some level.

Spurgeon said committee conclusions represented “a misconception of the (GNEP) program” and that the department “fully recognizes the complexity and time needed. … We are talking about something that will, in fact, take decades to develop.”

The GNEP program has been criticized by nuclear nonproliferation activists and has received a chilly reception in Congress, which has refused to provide the short-term funding the Energy Department has requested. The administration wanted nearly $395 million for the program this year, but is getting $167 million.

Although nuclear fuel reprocessing continues in Europe and Japan, the United States abandoned it in the 1970s because of concerns that the stream of pure plutonium that is created poses a nuclear proliferation risk. But the GNEP program envisions adopting a different reprocessing method that its advocates argue would not create pure plutonium.

But the Academy panel of scientists said that “significant technical problems remain to be solved” in development of the new approach, known as the “UREX” process.

The GNEP program is expected to cost billions of dollars over several decades and includes construction of reprocessing plants and next-generation “fast-burn” reactors to burn some of the processed waste.

The Energy Department maintains that the program in the long run will reduce the cost of commercial reactor waste disposal and remove the need for additional underground waste repositories beyond the proposed Yucca Mountain waste dump in Nevada.

The science panel disagreed.

“In view of the technical challenges involved the committee believes that the opposite will be true,” it said of the claimed cost savings.

The panel concluded that the GNEP program, even if pursued, is not expected to be ready in time to deal with the commercial nuclear waste that is accumulating at 104 existing U.S. commercial power reactors and the waste expected to be added from the additional reactors being built.

The National Research Council scientists, who were asked by Congress to examine the Energy Department’s nuclear research priorities, said that the GNEP program is taking away funding for a program, called “Nuclear Power 2010” to help promote the construction of new commercial nuclear power plants.

The Energy Department should put greater emphasis on that program to help identify new sites for nuclear power plants, promote design and engineering work for a new generation of light water reactors and help the NRC move promptly to license new power reactors, said the science panel.

Fifteen of the 17 panel members agreed that the previous research program into fuel reprocessing — which was replaced by GNEP — should continue, but that even that program should not advance to commercial deployment “unless there is a clear economic, national security or environmental reason to do so.”

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