US launches Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

8 February 2006

A $250 million programme, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) that will see spent nuclear fuel reprocessed, has been launched in the USA.

The GNEP's $250 million fiscal year 2007 budget request would be part of a budget that could stretch to $1 billion by 2009 and is part of president Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative announced in the recent State of the Union address.

The GNEP programme is aimed at opening the international nuclear power industry and spent fuel disposal by forging a partnership with other countries that deal with spent nuclear fuel. The programme will see new generation nuclear power plants developed in the USA along with new spent fuel reprocessing technologies that supply fuel to those plants.

There are two key technologies being considered, one called uranium extraction plus (Urex Plus) which combines plutonium with other actinides and some portion of uranium so that it is not usable as weapons material. The second option is dry reprocessing, or pyroprocessing. According to the US Department of Energy (DoE): “The technology separates uranium from all of the transuranic elements with a water-based acid dissolution of the used nuclear fuel. The process enables reuse of all the transuranics, minimises waste, avoids creation of liquid waste and makes the chemical separation more proliferation-reisistant than the older plutonium uranium extraction process.”

The key, said deputy secretary of energy Clay Sell, will be developing a fast reactor which can burn the actinide-based fuel. The USA hopes to demonstrate that technology over the course of the next ten years, according to Sell.

The partnership element would also see the reactor technologies rolled out to other countries such as France, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom, which would then lease the fuel from the USA before returning the spent fuel for reprocessing.

Sell added: “The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership at its core is a way that we anticipate dramatically expanding nuclear power here in the United States, but also in the world in a way which effectively addressed two of the great concerns that have historically been associated with nuclear power. Those are what do you do with the waste and what about the proliferation of technologies. We think the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership effectively addressees both of those great questions in a way which will enhance the expansion of nuclear power worldwide. Those are the policy goals.”

Energy secretary Sam Bodman said: “GNEP brings the promise of virtually limitless energy to emerging economies around the globe, in an environmentally friendly manner while reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation.” The programme also envisages developing and constructing small-scale reactors designed for the needs of developing countries.

"Our hope is to develop the technologies in partnership with the other nuclear economies of the world," said Sell, noting that he and other DoE officials already have briefed officials in several countries as well as International Atomic Energy Agency director general Mohamed ElBaradei.

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