News update

GNEP turns to the world

27 May 2009

The USA has stopped funding of some domestic Global Nuclear Energy Partnership initiatives, partly out of concern for nuclear proliferation. But at the same time, GNEP is becoming more popular outside the USA. By Will Dalrymple

The US Department of Energy has admitted that it has cancelled many aspects of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. In an 15 April statement, DoE deputy press secretary Jen Stutsman said: “The Department has already decided not to continue the domestic GNEP programme of the last administration. The long-term fuel cycle research and development programme will continue but not the near-term deployment of recycling facilities or fast reactors.”

In a speech at the IAEA International Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Energy in Beijing on 20 April, US ambassador to China Gregory Schulte explained the decision.

“Looking towards the future, our Department of Energy is currently restructuring its fuel cycle activities, which were previously focused on the near-term deployment of recycling processes and advanced reactor designs, into a long-term, science-based, research and development programme focused on the technical challenges associated with managing the back end of the fuel cycle. These challenges will be thoroughly vetted and resolved as we explore long-term solutions for management and disposition of our spent nuclear fuel.” (NEI understands that more details of the agency’s new plan will emerge in its FY2010 budget request within a month).

GNEP’s emphasis on spent fuel reprocessing has come under fire because of the inherent risks of nuclear proliferation in the process. The programme has also been vulnerable to funding cuts from the US Congress.

The cancellation would appear to most affect the projects of the four industry consortia who submitted proposals for spent fuel recycling and fast reactors in 2008 (although NEI has not received confirmation of this fact). The consortia are: EnergySolutions (which includes the Shaw Group, Westinghouse Electric and others), GE-Hitachi Nuclear Americas, General Atomics and the International Nuclear Recycling Alliance led by Areva and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

The cancellation probably also affects the US national laboratories working on the GNEP Technology Demonstration programme, although NEI has not been able to confirm this either. In 2006, the GNEP-TD programme had three elements: an engineering demonstration of the UREX+1A process, an advanced burner test reactor demonstration, and a so-called ‘advanced fuel cycle facility’ research lab.

Another GNEP domestic programme, the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, may not survive unscathed. Its short-term projects support the work of the industry consortia: working to develop and demonstrate fuel cycle technologies for treatment of commercial light water reactor spent fuel and spent fuel recycling plan. These might not survive. But it has longer-term projects as well, supporting fuel technology development for the Generation IV programme, and ultimately reducing the total amount of high-level waste intended for a geological repository.

The cancellation of the GNEP programme puts the status of public input into GNEP’s draft programmatic environmental impact statement into doubt. After 14 public hearings and a comment period that was extended to March 2009, the DoE received 15,000 comments.

Normally, the comments would be recorded in a database, and analysed to determine whether a final draft of the PEIS would need further research or revision to reflect public opinion. This process would typically take at least five months. But now, “no decision has been made yet on whether a final GNEP PEIS will be completed,” Stutsman said.

If a final PEIS were published in the US regulatory record the Federal Register, then the DoE might issue its final decision about GNEP, called a Record of Decision, at least a month later. As of mid-April, no decision about that has been made either, Stutsman said.

International growth

The cancellation of funding for some GNEP domestic programmes does not signal the demise of GNEP as a whole, or the USA’s support for its work internationally. The latest GNEP steering group meeting was in Tokyo, in April, with representatives from 22 countries, and also the IAEA and the Generation IV International Forum. The US government’s own Ed McGinnis is the chair of the GNEP partners and observers steering group.

GNEP’s infrastructure working group plans to meet in Manchester, UK on May 18-19 to discuss human resources development and small and medium reactors.

Over the last months, the remit of the Infrastructure Development Working Group (IDWG) has shifted slightly, to consider not only new-build and operating infrastructure, but also radioactive waste, which will again be discussed in May. The IDWG held its first radwaste workshop at its previous meeting in December 2008. The workshop came out of a proposal from the UK, unanimously supported, that “GNEP seek to facilitate strategies for the responsible management of nuclear wastes.” Perhaps the shift in emphasis is a tacit admission that GNEP’s ambitions to close the fuel cycle will take longer than initially hoped.

The fuel services working group is gearing up for a workshop from industry on fuel supply diversity at its next meeting, planned for September 2009. Also due before the meeting is a draft work plan for a brand-new subgroup, ‘Assurances a country should seek as sufficient for fuel supply.’

In the USA, the government has decided to prioritise nonproliferation over closing the fuel cycle, both domestically – by reversing the emphasis on fuel reprocessing - and internationally, through the next generation safeguards initiative, launched in September 2008 by the National Nuclear Security Administration. In his China speech, Schulte said the programme will “assist full use of IAEA inspection authorities; and to foster a culture of safeguards, security and safety in nations using nuclear energy.”

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