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Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) 

The 109th Congress failed in its most basic responsibilities and, despite both houses’ being controlled by the same party, was unable to pass a budget. Therefore, like much of the U.S. government, the Global Nuclear Partnership (GNEP) is operating under a continuing resolution. In other words, Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 spending will be a continuation of FY 2006 spending without a review of priorities and needs. Department budgets are allocated to “accounts,” and while money cannot be moved from one account to another, it can be moved within an account. Since Department of Energy (DOE) accounts are quite broad, the Department can shuffle substantial amounts of money around without a legislative directive. Under a continuing resolution, the Department does the allocation, which it then reports to Congress. The DOE allocation was reported to Congress on 15 March.

In FY 2006, the budget for GNEP was $80M. DOE put in a request for $250M for 2007. At the end of the 109th Congress, the House had approved $120M, a cut of more than half. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee had voted $279M but the full Senate had not acted by the end of the session. According to E&E News (Mary O’Driscoll, 16 March 2007), DOE has used its allocation flexibility to put $167.5M into the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership for this year, less than they asked for but most likely more than they would have got had Congress passed a budget. Astonishingly, the E&E article quotes Assistant Secretary Spurgeon as being either unable or unwilling to account for the source of these additional funds, writing “’I can't point to one particular spot’ as to the source of the additional GNEP money, Spurgeon said. ‘It was a balancing of the overall energy supply budget that was considered to be in the best interest of our energy future.’” The money must legally come from the Energy and Conservation Account. The new Congress was so concerned that DOE would raid the renewable energy account that it specifically walled off research on wind power, solar power, or improved efficiency to prohibit raids on those budgets.

This year’s spending and the request for $405M for next year are consistent with the administration’s headlong rush to commit the country to reprocessing, and particular reprocessing technologies, over the next couple of years. The sense of urgency can only be political because there is no technical or economic reason to hurry. Mary O'Driscoll, this time writing in Greenwire (Jan 9, 2007), quoted John Deutsch of MIT, who is generally pro-nuclear, as saying GNEP "is hugely expensive, hugely misdirected and hugely out of sync with the needs of the industry and the nation.” Yet the DOE seems intent on making decisions now that will commit the nation to particular technologies for many decades into the future. Most importantly, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is not a research and development plan. The current plan is to build what will be the world’s largest reprocessing facility capable of reprocessing (assuming all goes as advertised) 2000-3000 tons of reactor fuel a year, significantly larger than the French reprocessing facility which has processed 1650 tons a year (but now handles about half that because its foreign business has disappeared). DOE is proposing that the first GNEP burner reactor will be a full-scale, commercial power plant. Global Nuclear Energy Partnership plans do not include technology demonstrations, pilot plants, or scalable production. This is a recipe for disaster. Experience in the United States and other countries is not encouraging. The British recently awarded the first contracts of 17-18 billion pounds to cover the costs of cleaning up the reprocessing facility at Sellafield. GNEP has the potential to become the greatest technological debacle in US history.

A telling point is that almost no independent analysts, that is, those not working for the Department of Energy, have anything good to say about the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. In the Greenwire article cited above, Deutsch called GNEP a “goofy idea.” Even overall supporters of nuclear power, like Ernest Moniz of MIT (Moniz was, along with Deutsch, cochairman of the panel that wrote the very influential MIT study, The Future of Nuclear Power), oppose GNEP if for no other reason than it is premature. It may be a good idea at the end of the 21st Century, but not now. Even the nuclear power industry is at best tepid in its support, worrying that GNEP is a diversion from the immediate problem of a geological repository. Recent questions from members of Congress highlights another concern: even potential supporters of the idea of reprocessing are wary of entrusting the gargantuan technical task to the Department of Energy because DOE has shown repeatedly and consistently that it is incapable of managing such complex projects.

Perhaps as a result the lack of outside expert support, the DOE seems to be focusing on selling GNEP not on technical grounds but through public relations. One fascinating example is the result of a series of focus groups held in Idaho. DOE’s consultants reported that one of the most appealing aspects of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was that it “recycled” plutonium. If it is good for aluminum cans, how can it be bad for plutonium? The recently re-released "Strategic Plan," used the word “recycling” 37 times in ten pages. Most significantly, what was (and still is on most DOE materials) the “Advanced Burner Reactor” has magically been transformed into the “Advanced Recycling Reactor.” The reprocessing plant, which was called the “Consolidated Fuel Treatment Center,” is now called the “Nuclear Fuel Recycling Center,” which is a complete misnomer because “reprocessing” is just separation of the used fuel into various types of waste, it is not reuse. Not all pages on the DOE website have been converted to the “recycling” message. Readers are invited to visit the website occasionally and observe what I predict will be the eventual takeover of “recycling.”

Another way to gain political support is to buy it. The DOE has done this in an unusual move, offering eleven communities an average of a million dollars each to prepare proposals for why each of them should be chosen as the GNEP preprocessing site. DOE gives many grants for projects and research, of course, but I know of no other instance when the DOE has basically paid for these sorts of bid proposals.

The legislation requires that communities apply but, in fact, the “entities” that applied are more often nuclear companies (GE, EnergySolutions, for example), economic development groups (SRS), or city councils (Hanford and Hobbs NM). As part of the applications, the “entities” had to say that the community would be willing to be a storage site for spent fuel. For a while, DOE and these “entities” refused to share the applications with the “communities” the purported to represent. Redacted versions of a few of the applications have been released by the “entities.”

A variety of technical issues point strongly to Savannah River facility in South Carolina as the only plausible site for the planned enormous reprocessing plant and that is where it will eventually end up so a cynic might speculate that these payments by DOE are intended to buy temporary regional political support until GNEP gets irreversibly established. Fortunately, I am not a cynic.

The Department of Energy is wrapping up the public comment period on the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. A series of public comment meetings were held around the country. I spoke at the 19 March meeting in Washington, D.C. Readers who would like to submit written comments to DOE they may do so because the comment period has been extended from 4 April to 4 June. At most of the meetings, turnout has been surprisingly high and comments about the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership have been overwhelmingly negative. Some localities seem to be enthusiastic because they see jobs in the future. Others are skeptical. The Illinois Attorney General wrote a scathing letter of inquiry asking questions about DOE’s intentions.

I organized a special session on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco in February. Phillip Finck, now of Idaho National Laboratory, having recently moved from Argonne, presented the case for GNEP. (I do not have a copy of his San Francisco slides but a very similar presentation is available here.) FAS Board Member, Richard Garwin presented a critical assessment of GNEP and, in particular, suggested that the real motivation of GNEP is to create a backdoor to a breeder program. (This is not entirely surprising; note, for example, p. ii of the first GNEP report to Congress.) The final speaker was Victor Gilinsky who spoke on the effect of GNEP on the Yucca Mountain repository. He concludes that even if GNEP moves forward as planned, the timelines are such that it cannot help us out of the problems with Yucca.

On 15 April, I give a paper on GNEP and non-proliferation at a meeting of the American Physical Society. I shall post those materials after the meeting.

Finally, Professor Frank von Hippel of Princeton has written a superb summary of the Global Nuclear Partnership and the problems with the proposed program.

Many thanks to Michele Boyd of Public Citizen for essential comments on a draft of this essay.

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This is the fifth update of this page on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, written in late August 2006. Additional analysis is contained in a recent article, "GNEP: not quite ripe," that was printed in Nuclear Engineering International. I will not repeat that material here. That piece was written in June and there has been news since then.

On 3 August 2006, Dennis Spurgeon, DOE's assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy, held a telephone press conference. (I missed the last 5 minutes or so because of technical problems on my end.) The most significant announcement was that DOE is actually accelerating the GNEP process. The bottom line from this meeting is that DOE is going to skip the demonstration plant step and go directly to commercial scale plants and a commercial sized fast neutron reactor. At the same time, a second track will be to continue research on more advanced reprocessing technologies and reactors. Plutonium reprocessing and recycling might be an excellent idea, at the end of the century; but there need be no hurry to reprocess. This is a step in exactly the wrong direction.

On 14 August 2006, the DOE held a briefing for industry given by Tim Frazier, Acting Deputy Director for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, Office of Nuclear Energy, to elicit Expressions of Interest (EOIs) from industry. This is a step short of a Request for Proposals. DOE wants industry’s idea on a fuel reprocessing facility, which they call the Consolidated Fuel Treatment Center (CFTC), and on a new fast burner reactor, called the Advanced Burner Reactor (ABR). There is also planned an Advanced Fuel Cycle Facility (AFCF) that will fabricate fuel from the material produced by the CFTC but this effort is to be led by the National Labs, not industry. (I did not attend this meeting and want to thank Michelle Boyd of Public Citizen for her commentary.)

The outcome of these two meetings is that DOE is planning on plunging head first into building commercial scale plants. And commercial scale is important, I don’t think anyone actually believes these plants will be commercially, that is, financially, viable. Even so, Spurgeon argued that reprocessing is as cheap as geologic storage. He based his claim on a study done by the Boston Consulting Group, which admits it based all its findings on unquestioned cost data provided by the French reprocessing firm Areva. I discuss this in some more detail in a recent blog entry.

The reprocessing facility, if it is built and operates, will probably produce a mixture of plutonium and uranium using yet another variation on the PUREX process called COEX (for co-extraction). The idea is that pure plutonium will never be produced and this is supposed to reduce the proliferation dangers.

As I have discussed before, this is a hollow claim. If the material is stolen, nothing prevents a terrorist or proliferating government from putting the material through the sixty year old PUREX process and getting pure plutonium.

The presence of uranium in the mixture means that while the fast reactor is burning some plutonium, it will be breeding additional plutonium from the uranium. While the result can still be a net consumption of plutonium, adding uranium to the reactor makes it effectively a less efficient plutonium burner.

Moreover, the scale and the schedule of the reprocessing facility will be far ahead of the fast burner reactor. This implies that inventories of plutonium fuel will build up, especially because the fast reactor’s initial charge of plutonium fuel will apparently be plutonium, not the tranuranic mixture from a light water reactor that would be required if GNEP is to make any sense as all.

Given all this, the one thing that the DOE claims it is not aiming for seems almost inevitable: using the already mixed plutonium/uranium product to make MOX fuel for light water reactors, a course that even GNEP advocates agree makes no sense. DOE says this is not its intent but it seems a natural outcome.

My previous essay on reprocessing contains much technical discussion that is still timely so I have left it below.

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This is the fourth update of this page on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP. The GNEP was covered in some detail at the Department of Energy (DOE) FY2007 budget rollout that includes a $250 million dollar request. (When following the link, be certain to go to all of the linked pages; there is a lot of material there.) As of today (22 May) the Energy and Water Bill has been marked up in the House and $100 million was cut from the request directly and another $30 million in a second cut was diverted to other energy programs, leaving $120 million. Senate support is not clear at this moment but certain key Senators are strong supporters. There may be a wide gap between the Senate and House positions that will have to be resolved in Conference Committee.

The Administration’s presentation of the GNEP seems intended to anticipate potential objections to the program but the logic behind the proposal is deeply flawed. The GNEP is being cast as a counter to nuclear proliferation. FAS agrees that proliferation is a grave threat but the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership will not solve any proliferation problems and will make some worse.

The anti-proliferation arguments contain two important logical fallacies. First, the overall GNEP proposal calls for current nuclear fuel producers to become the world’s exclusive nuclear fuel producers. That means that countries that cannot now enrich uranium would be denied that capability in the future because enrichment can be used to produce weapons grade uranium. In a reactor, nuclear fuel containing uranium-238 produces plutonium, which can also be used in nuclear weapons. Therefore, fuel producers would not only provide fuel for consumer nations but would take back the used fuel for reprocessing. The fallacy is not just that the fuel has to be taken back—it could be placed in an appropriate geological repository in the user country—but that it has to be taken back for reprocessing. The fuel could be reprocessed or it could be put into a geological repository. Once it is out of the hands of the non-nuclear weapon state, the anti-proliferation goal has been met. The GNEP proposal tries to make an iron-clad logical connection between reprocessing and non-proliferation when, in fact, there is little or none.

Second, the GNEP proposal states that the envisioned separation technologies are "proliferation resistant" (The DOE is very careful not to claim that anything is “proliferation proof.”) There have been various proposals for new separation techniques, for example, UREX, UREX+, and, something I first heard about at a meeting last week in Chicago, UREX+1. In the longer term, other techniques, such as pyroprocessing might become available on an industrial scale.When GNEP proponents say that these techniques are “proliferation resistant,” they mean they are compared to the PUREX process PUREX was developed during the Manhattan project specifically to provide plutonium for the first atomic bombs. The claim is, then, that UREX variants are less proliferation prone than a process that was specifically designed for bomb manufacture, a very feeble achievement indeed. But none of these processes is more proliferation resistant that what we are planning to do now, that is, disposal in a geological repository.

Part of the proliferation resistance comes about because some variations on PUREX, for example UREX+, intentionally leave radioactive contaminants in the plutonium to make them more difficult to steal and handle if stolen. Frank von Hippel and Jungmin Kang at Princeton University have calculated the radiation doses from UREX+ and pyroprocessing fuel and find that it falls far short of meeting the standards of "self protection" Moreover, even if impurities are intentionally left in the plutonium, nothing prevents a thief from using a simplified version of the sixty year old PUREX technology to get pure plutonium out. Finally, as pointed out by Richard Garwin recently in Congressional testimony, spent fuel from a nuclear reactor is about 1% plutonium, while UREX+ fuel would be 90+%, so a thief would need to steal only about 9 kg of UREX+ fuel to get an 8 kg critical mass of plutonium but would have to steal approximately 800 kg of lethally radioactive spent fuel to get a critical mass.

The core of the Administration’s proposal is to separate plutonium and other radioactive isotopes from spent nuclear fuel. The full-fledged idea is to then recycle the plutonium in new commercial fast neutron nuclear reactors. Reprocessing and recycling are being touted as means to reduce the amount of nuclear waste produced, specifically the need for some follow-on to the Yucca Mountain repository. The Administration recognizes that some in Congress are wary of the costs of the program; therefore, the Administration and some in Congress are now discussing a fallback plan that would simply separate the plutonium but not recycle it.

The benefits of reprocessing to waste storage are more complex than the DOE public information suggests. The GNEP website claims that reprocessing will substantially reduce the volume of radioactive waste. While this is true, volume is easily the least relevant measure of the nuclear waste problem. For example, the great majority of the waste coming out of a nuclear reactor is uranium-238, which, with a five billion year half life, is not particularly radioactive. What is relevant is the total radioactivity, the geologically mobile radioactivity, and the heat generation. The greatest source of radioactivity for recently-removed fuel rods is the fission products. These are unavoidable. All fuel cycles will produce about the same fission products for a given amount of electric energy produced. In some fuel cycles the fission products will come from uranium-235 and in others from plutonium-239, but there will be only small differences between the whole mixture of fission products. Longer term radioactivity and heat production of the waste from the simple once-through fuel cycle is dominated by a few transuranic isotopes, such as plutonium and americium. In a full recycled fuel cycle, these elements would, indeed, be substantially reduced. And it is heat production, not volume, that limits the amount of waste that can be put into Yucca Mountain and recycling would reduce substantially the heat production and would, therefore, allow a much tighter packing of fission products. However, the long term exposure danger come primarily from two fission products, isotopes of iodine and technetium, not from the transuranics, because fortunately the transuranics are comparatively immobile geologically. Thus, removing the heat producers and putting more fission products in could actually increase the ultimate surface radiation exposure from fission products. (Although, under a once through scheme, the same fission products would be produced, just stored over a larger volume or in multiple repositories.)

The DOE proposal will restart plutonium reprocessing in the United States after a three decade hiatus. Plutonium reprocessing was tried and abandoned in the United States because it was uneconomic and increased the global availability of plutonium, which can be used in nuclear bombs. It has been US government policy to set an example against commercial reprocessing because of the nuclear weapon proliferation danger. The example has not proved persuasive in all cases, obviously. Some other countries, at great expense, continue reprocessing. The United States kept, of course, a program for production of military plutonium, which has now ceased.

Natural uranium is made up of atoms of two slightly different masses, so-called isotopes. More than 99% is uranium-238. The remainder is uranium-235 and it is this lighter and rarer form of uranium that can power a nuclear reactor. For most types of nuclear reactors, natural uranium must have some of the uranium-238 stripped out to increase the relative concentration of uranium-235 before the reactor will operate. Current nuclear reactors require uranium that is about 5% uranium-235.

When uranium fuel burns up in a nuclear reactor, some of the heavier uranium-238, which is not normally burned, is converted to plutonium-239 and that can be used as a reactor fuel. It might seem tempting to try to recover that plutonium by reprocessing the used nuclear fuel, and then recycling it back into the nuclear reactor. This works perfectly in theory, but not in practice. The problem is not the physics but the engineering and the economics. The reactor waste containing the plutonium is lethally radioactive. All work with it must be done by remote control or by robots under the strictest possible environmental controls. Necessary equipment is expensive to buy and maintain. The resulting plutonium can be mixed with fresh uranium to create a mixed oxide or “MOX” fuel that can be passed back into the reactor. While this is physically possible, indeed has been done, all experience in all countries that have tried it has demonstrated conclusively that it has always been easier and cheaper to simply mine fresh uranium and enrich it.

The United States has attempted commercial reprocessing and recycling in the past. The one commercial plant, in West Valley, New York, took six years to reprocess one year’s worth of reactor waste and was shut down as uneconomic, leaving behind a multi-billion dollar environmental cleanup bill. Japan has just opened a new reprocessing facility in Rokkasho that, at $20 billion, is about three times more expensive than originally budgeted. The British THORP plant was recently closed after a broken pipe leaked twenty tons of reactor fuel waste. The plant will most likely never reopen. A study requested by the French government estimated that their program cost approximately $25 billion more than a simple, once-through fuel cycle. Yet, the subsidized French program continues to produce separated plutonium faster than commercial reactor operators are willing to accept it, resulting in ever-increasing stockpiles of plutonium.

The Administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership proposal would take a huge leap beyond existing reprocessing. It turns out that, when the plutonium-239 is recycled in the process described above, other isotopes of plutonium and other elements are also created that are undesirable in current nuclear reactors.  This means that the plutonium can only be passed back through current reactors once; then it must be disposed of like any other reactor waste. The waste created by the recycled plutonium fuel produces more residual heat than normal waste, thereby actually increasing the challenge of waste disposal. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership will probably eventually include a program, recently initiated by FY 2006 legislation, to develop so-called “closed-cycle” reprocessing. This approach, which again works well in theory, would recycle all of the new isotopes back into nuclear fuel. But the resulting fuel would not be usable in current nuclear reactors. It would require construction of a new fleet of a different type of commercial reactor, called fast neutrons reactors.

Longtime friend of FAS and Nobel Prize winner Burt Richter wrote to disagree with an earlier version of this essay. Dr. Richter supports nuclear power in general and believes that plutonium reprocessing/recycling has significant benefits. I agree in theory but the problem is not that this closed-cycle reprocessing cannot work ever. The problem is economics, engineering and timing. A recent study from Harvard University looked at the economic problem in terms of the price of uranium. They concluded that reprocessing and recycling starts to make sense when the price of uranium reaches $360 a kilogram. Currently, uranium is approximately $80/kg (and that is considered by analysts to be a short term spike while new production gets online). No one expects uranium price to reach that break-even point for several decades. In fact, the OECD has developed estimates of global sources of uranium recoverable at different costs and these suggest that reprocessing will not be economically justified until the end of the 21st Century. Dr. Richter counters, correctly I believe, that the cost of fuel is such a small part of nuclear-electric power production that fuel costs cannot be decisive. Other factors, such as proliferation and waste disposal are more important.

The problem with GNEP is that all of these “other factors” also argue against plutonium reprocessing and recycling. To recycle the plutonium requires commercialization  of fast-neutron reactors. These will inevitably be more expensive than current and future thermal neutron reactors (the type currently used around the world for power production) and their additional cost is not negligible. The higher costs will make the “burner” reactors commercially infeasible so they must be government-owned (and most likely contractor-operated) or operate under large government subsidies.

I believe the major source of disagreement with Dr. Richter arises because of different perspective due to different time scales. Given continuing technological progress, I have no doubt that, eventually, all this will make good sense. At the same time, sections of the 2006 Energy and Water legislation, sponsored by Congressman Hobson and supported by Senator Domenici, required that DOE develop recycling technology plans and roadmaps by March, begins site competition in June, requires specifying a conceptual design by the end of September, and technology demonstration and selection next year. This schedule was reckless and since then, all of these deadlines have gone by the boards. The Administration has put in for an additional $250 million for FY2007 and, while DOE is not quite so eager as Congress, it is still pushing technology commitments prematurely in my opinion. Proponents of closed-cycle reprocessing most likely would agree that making a bad technical decision early could hurt longer-term prospects. Even if, eventually, plutonium reprocessing and recycling turn out to be technically viable, there is no economic reason to pursue reprocessing now. Reprocessing will not affect the Yucca Mountain decision and it will not save money. We can afford to wait for literally several decades before committing to any particular reprocessing technology.

Plutonium reprocessing is just part of Administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. Part of the proposal could significantly enhance global counterproliferation by effecting proposals made by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohammad ElBaradei. Specifically, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership includes initiatives to establish an international enriched uranium bank so that non-nuclear nations do not need to develop uranium enrichment capability. It suggests that the United States and a limited number of other nations might establish a few global nuclear waste repositories so inventories of plutonium-laced nuclear waste do not accumulate in non-nuclear weapons states but, according to the DOE material, waste will only be returned to the United States if it is to be reprocessed. Nevertheless, the political barriers to actually importing nuclear waste when the country cannot agree on what to do existing domestic waste may be formidable.

Unfortunately, the equipment needed to enrich uranium for use as a nuclear reactor fuel is exactly the same equipment needed to enrich uranium to bomb-grade concentrations. Therefore, the FAS supports an international fuel bank along with a general ban on any further proliferation of enrichment capability. We believe the current enriching countries should subsidize the bank, offering reactor grade uranium at less cost than any country could produce it themselves. The cost of enrichment is a small part of the total cost of nuclear energy production so even a substantial subsidy would not distort economic decisions about nuclear power. Yet, with a subsidized bank available, any country that sought their own enrichment capacity would be demonstrating a non-economic interest in enrichment, probably for bombs. The waste fuel should be disposed of in an appropriate geological repository. If one is not ready, dry cask storage will be adequate for another century.

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