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Reprocessing Nuclear Fuel

Gordon Edwards

Background:

More and more, nuclear proponents are talking about "recycling" nuclear fuel. The correct term is reprocessing. It is an exceptionally dangerous technology. Irradiated nuclear fuel must be dissolved in boiling nitric acid, producing large volumes of corrosive and highly radioactive liquids, and releasing radioactive gases and vapors, so that the "fissile materials" -- plutonium and residual uranium -- can be chemically separated from the liquid solution and re-used to fuel nuclear reactors. Once recycled in this way, the nuclear fuel can be easily diverted to nuclear weapons use (such is NOT the casewith "once-through" or "non-recycled" nuclear fuel.)

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WASHINGTON, DC - April 28 - The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation commended nine senators who urged funding cuts last week to the Department of Energy's efforts to both resume nuclear spent fuel reprocessing in the United States and to reuse nuclear weapons-usable material in domestic and foreign power reactors pursuant to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

The nine senators who signed the April 24 letter making the request were Russ Feingold (D-WI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), John Kerry (D-MA), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH). The letter asks Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Ranking Member Pete Domenici (R-NM) to cut funding for the reprocessing and reuse of commercial spent nuclear fuel.

The full text of the letter is below.

"We write in opposition to Department of Energy's (DOE) fiscal year 2009 request for over $300 million to reprocess commercial nuclear spent fuel," the letter states. "We have significant concerns with DOE's plans to initiate commercial reprocessing of nuclear fuel in the United States, and do not support setting in motion a massive multi-decade government-subsidized nuclear reprocessing program."

Leonor Tomero, Director for Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, noted: "This letter is an indication of increasing skepticism in Congress about the administration's reprocessing plans."

"The senators expressed wide-ranging concerns about the program ranging from cost, to nuclear proliferation risks, to environmental contamination dangers to past failures in this area," added Tomero.

The administration is seeking over $300 million for reprocessing in fiscal year 2009, including $302 for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative. In fiscal year 2008, the Department of Energy sought $405 million but received only $179 million in the omnibus appropriations bill.

FULL TEXT OF LETTER

Dear Chairman Dorgan and Ranking Member Domenici:

We write in opposition to Department of Energy's (DOE) fiscal year 2009 request for over $300 million to reprocess commercial nuclear spent fuel. This effort, which is promoted as part of the Administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, is primarily funded under the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative.

Thank you for your strong leadership in rejecting DOE's fiscal year 2008 request for $405 million, providing instead $179 million and ensuring funds could not be used to construct reprocessing facilities for demonstration or commercialization. We respectfully ask you that you continue that leadership in the FY 2009 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill.

We have significant concerns with DOE's plans to initiate commercial reprocessing of nuclear fuel in the United States, and do not support setting in motion a massive multi-decade government-subsidized nuclear reprocessing program. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences states "the GNEP program should not go forward," calling DOE's accelerated timetable and efforts to initiate commercial-scale facilities "unwise," "[lacking] economic justification" and that it "will create significant technical and financial risks."

Our concerns include:

Reprocessing and plutonium fuel use could cost taxpayers $200 billion. Although DOE has failed to provide an official cost analysis of the entire program, it is clear that reprocessing is drastically more expensive than the current practice of "once-through" fuel cycle systems. In 1996, the National Academy of Sciences estimated the costs for reprocessing and transmutation could easily reach $100 billion to deal only with the existing spent fuel in the US today, and the GNEP program proposes to reprocess spent fuel from new domestic reactors, as well as from foreign reactors.

Past efforts to reprocess and re-use spent fuel in the U.S. have been failures. In 1983, Congress canceled the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, initially estimated to cost $400 million, when GAO cost estimates reached $8.8 billion. In 1972, the West Valley, NY reprocessing facility shut down after reprocessing only one year's worth of spent fuel during its six years of operation, requiring a $5.3 billion clean-up effort that is still ongoing today.

GNEP has morphed into a large-scale construction project well beyond research and development (R&D), even though the technologies that GNEP proposes are not available. Since first unveiling GNEP to Congress in February 2006, the Administration has changed its plans at least four times and is now proposing to build a commercial-scale reprocessing plant and a full-scale fast reactor, even though currently available technologies do not meet GNEP's goals. Much of the necessary technology will not be viable for 40-50 years at best, as GNEP hinges on the development and deployment of dozens of fast reactors, a type of reactor that has not been successfully commercialized anywhere despite 50 years of U.S. and international research.

Reprocessing is not a viable solution to the nuclear waste problem. According to the recently released Keystone Center report, which is the product of a federal, industry, academic, and non-profit collaborative process, "reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel does not eliminate the need for a geologic repository, because there is residual high-level waste from the reprocessing stream that needs to be sequestered in a geologic repository." Reprocessing and plutonium fuel use would only divert attention away from a viable long-term solution to nuclear waste.

Reprocessing undercuts U.S. non-proliferation efforts. Commercial reprocessing in the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Russia has resulted in the accumulation of over 150 metric tons of separated plutonium that can be used to make nuclear weapons, exacerbating the risk of terrorists gaining access to this material. Similarly, DOE's proposed technologies would also result in material that could be easily processed to make a nuclear weapon. At a time when the United States is seeking to limit the spread of reprocessing technology and expertise to other countries, resuming reprocessing would reverse decades of U.S. leadership that contributed to countries such as Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan abandoning their reprocessing ambitions.

We have serious concerns about the implications of current plans for commercial spent fuel reprocessing and urge you to cut funding for spent fuel reprocessing in the FY 09 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill.

We thank you for your continued leadership and consideration of this important matter.

Sincerely,

Russ Feingold (D-WI)Ron Wyden (D-OR) John Kerry (D-MA) Charles Schumer (D-NY)Daniel Akaka (D-HI) Bernard Sanders (I-VT) Tom Harkin (D-IA) Edward Kennedy (D-MA) Sherrod Brown (D-OH)