The U.S. Energy Department should scale back spending on its nuclear-fuel recycling program in favor of funding efforts to license and build new reactors, a study showed.
The department's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, “should not go forward'' and it “should be replaced by a less aggressive research program,'' according to a report released today by the National Research Council in Washington.
“There is no economic justification to go forward with this program at anything approaching commercial scale,'' the council said in the report. “Significant technical problems remain to be solved.''
President George W. Bush proposed the new nuclear-fuel reprocessing program last year. The administration said reprocessing will help the long-term push for new U.S. nuclear power plants because it reduces the amount of radioactive waste that must be permanently stored at repositories such as the one proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership program could cost $40 billion over its lifetime, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told Congress during a February 2006 hearing. The cost to the U.S. would be reduced by the participation of industry and other nations. So far 16 nations have signed on to join the program, including China, Russia and France.
Russia, Japan and France already reprocess nuclear fuel. The U.S. program aims to establish reprocessing that would not result in pure plutonium, which could be used in nuclear weapons.
The report “is based on a misconception of the program,'' Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary for nuclear energy, said during a conference call with reporters today.
“Their principal objection was that we not proceed in haste to build commercial-scale facilities using new and unproven technology,'' Spurgeon said.
The department “fully recognizes the complexity and time required'' to develop proliferation-free nuclear fuel reprocessing, he said.
Some members of Congress have expressed skepticism about the GNEP project, and opponents say reprocessing poses proliferation risks. The House in June approved legislation that would create an international nuclear-fuel bank to provide fuel to nations that do not operate reprocessing facilities.
The Energy Department this year asked Congress to more than double funding for its reprocessing program for the 2008 fiscal year, from $167.5 million in 2007 to $395 million. House members recommended cutting funding to $120 million and the Senate proposed $242 million.
“It is unnecessary to rush into a plan that continues to raise concerns among scientists and has only weak support from industry given that there are reasonable options available for short-term storage of nuclear waste and that this project will cost tens of billions of dollars and last for decades,'' according to a June statement by the House Appropriations Committee.
The spending plan for 2008 has yet to be reconciled by Congress and sent to the president.
Bodman plans to recommend to Bush next year whether to proceed with GNEP. That decision date “is not credible,'' the report showed. The department “should commission an independent peer review of the state of knowledge as a prerequisite to any secretarial decision on future research programs.''
More of the money allotted to the department's Office of Nuclear Energy should go toward a program that supports licensing and building of new commercial reactors, the report showed.
The council is part of a nonprofit institution that provides scientific advice to the government. The report was paid for by the Energy Department.