US president George W Bush’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) has won considerable support abroad. Yet, it has been so pilloried at home by the Democratic-controlled Congress, nonproliferation groups, and outside experts that it is unclear whether it will survive his presidency.
Neither of the two presumed major party presidential candidates, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, or Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, have spelled out explicitly whether they will continue GNEP. But an examination of their general approaches to nuclear energy, their party’s positions on these issues, and their supporters provides some indication of the course they might take. So does a look at the future makeup of the US Congress, where the results of November’s election and a key Senate retirement also will likely affect support for the effort.
Bush administration officials have claimed that GNEP, which seeks to develop new nuclear technologies and new international nuclear fuel arrangements, will cut nuclear waste and decrease the risk that an anticipated growth in the use of nuclear energy worldwide could spur nuclear weapons proliferation. Critics assert that the administration’s course would exacerbate the proliferation risks posed by the spread of spent fuel reprocessing technology, be prohibitively expensive, and fail to significantly ease waste disposal challenges without any certainty that the claimed technologies will ever be developed.
Current reprocessing technologies yield pure or nearly pure plutonium that can be used in fuel for nuclear reactors or to provide fissile material for nuclear weapons. GNEP proposes eventually to build reprocessing facilities able to produce a product that would retain other elements from the spent fuel along with the plutonium, making it less attractive for weapons production than pure plutonium. But critics note that this fuel would be much less proliferation-resistant than when the spent fuel is left intact and not reprocessed. They also point out that GNEP’s near-term plans include more proliferation-prone technologies.
The simmering debate over GNEP comes at a time when broader nuclear energy issues have taken on increased salience in the US presidential campaign. Soaring prices of fossil fuels and rising concerns over global climate change have given a boost to this low-carbon source of electricity. And the US Department of Energy (DoE) has increasingly come under fire from nuclear operators for its failure to take spent fuel off their hands, while charging them a 0.1¢/kWh user fee for just that purpose.
Yet, both candidates are vying to win Nevada, a crucial swing state where state politicians, particularly Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the US Senate, have long stymied federal efforts to place spent US nuclear fuel in a planned permanent repository in Yucca Mountain.GNEP’s supporters have promoted the programme as a potential solution to this dilemma. They have claimed that if it is successful, including the use of fast-neutron reactors to fission plutonium and other long-lived transuranic elements, the products of this reprocessing technology would use far less permanent repository space than the current once through fuel cycle since the transuranic elements generate most of the radioactive heat during the first 2000 years after emplacement. They concede, however, that such an outcome would only be possible after decades of research, development and deployment of a new generation of more costly fast-neutron reactors and would require the construction of additional storage facilities to store shorter-lived fission products for hundreds of years.
An important plank
Nuclear energy has emerged as an important plank in McCain’s energy strategy. He has pledged that if he is elected he will “set this nation on a course to building 45 new reactors by the year 2030, with the ultimate goal of 100 new plants to power the homes and factories and cities of America.”
In a 27 May speech on nuclear nonproliferation, McCain first seemed to imply that there was a way that he could accomplish this ambitious expansion without following through with longstanding DoE plans for Yucca Mountain. In June, the DoE applied for a licence to operate the facility, which is scheduled to begin operation no earlier than 2020.
McCain called for finding a location for an international spent fuel repository and claimed: “It is even possible that such an international centre could make it unnecessary to open the proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.”
McCain quickly backed away from those remarks. A day later during a campaign stop in Nevada, he implicitly acknowledged that some form of spent fuel repository would be needed. But this time he also advocated spent fuel reprocessing, the technological heart of the GNEP programme.
“I support Yucca Mountain once it goes through all the processes it needs to go through,” McCain said. “But I also support reprocessing. A little straight talk, we have to do both.”
Obama, on the other hand, said he has ruled out going ahead with plans for Yucca Mountain. Saying it is “not an option,” Obama’s energy plan states: “Our government has already spent billions of dollars on Yucca Mountain, and yet there are still significant questions about whether nuclear waste can be safely stored there.”
While not opposed in principle to expanding nuclear power, Obama has claimed he would not support doing so until concerns about spent fuel storage, nuclear security, public information, and nonproliferation are sufficiently addressed.
He used a 24 June speech in Nevada to try and score points with local residents and slam McCain on the nuclear waste issue. “He wants to build 45 new nuclear reactors when they don’t have a plan to store the waste anywhere besides right here,” he said.
Similarly, responding to a question in Jacksonville, Florida on 20 June, Obama said: “I think that nuclear power should be in the mix when it comes to energy.” But he added: “I don’t think it’s our optimal energy source because we haven’t figured out how to store the waste safely or recycle the waste.”
Obama has said that he favours accelerating federal research and development efforts to explore whether nuclear waste can be stored safely for reuse.
His energy plan indicates that while such research efforts continue, Obama favours interim storage solutions rather than the near-term and less proliferation-resistant reprocessing indicated in the administration’s GNEP plan. The plan states: “Obama will also lead federal efforts to look for a safe, long-term disposal solution based on objective, scientific analysis. In the meantime, Obama will develop requirements to ensure that the waste stored at current reactor sites is contained using the most advanced dry cask storage technology available.”
Obama thus seems to be lining up with members of his party and outside critics in rejecting some of the fundamental tenets of GNEP. And, perhaps not surprisingly, McCain seems to be urging more of a continuation of the approach backed by the Bush administration.
GNEP membership may double
Indeed, as it winds down, the Bush administration has been seeking to further expand GNEP. A senior Bush administration official said 15 July that invitations are being extended to as many as 25 more countries to join GNEP by signing the partnership’s statement of principles at a ministerial meeting in October. If they all accept, that would more than double the number of countries actively participating in GNEP (it has 21 members today). Those would be on top of any of the 17 other countries, such as Germany, Egypt, Sweden and South Africa, that had previously been invited to join the partnership, but have chosen so far to remain as observers rather than signing the statement of principles.
The GNEP invitations are tied to an evolving US strategy of trying to work with other nuclear supplier states to provide incentives to states that do not currently have their own uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities in return for an understanding that the states will not build those sensitive facilities. Although the GNEP statement of principles does not require countries to give up their rights to acquire enrichment or reprocessing plants, memoranda of understanding along these lines have been signed between the USA and three gulf countries (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). The USA and Qatar are said to be negotiating a similar agreement. Other elements include support for physical and human infrastructure development, such as: training programmes for nuclear personnel and regulators; new financing from international development banks; and the development of smaller ‘grid-appropriate’ reactors better suited for the electric grids of developing countries. This approach was generally backed by Bush and then Russian president Vladimir Putin a year ago, but only recently has the USA been seeking to outline more specific proposals.
In a report publicly released in June, the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board offered a strong endorsement for GNEP. The report claimed that US fuel reprocessing could be a “key step toward undermining other nations’ rationale for obtaining reprocessing and/or enrichment technologies” and thus serve a nonproliferation purpose.
First, it claimed that reprocessing would reduce the volume and difficulty of storing spent fuel in the USA.
Second, the report indicated that once the disposition of spent fuel from US nuclear reactors was resolved, the USA should be prepared to accept the return of spent US fuel that has been irradiated in foreign reactors: “Only when these issues are resolved will it be possible to return US-supplied fuel to the United States (or perhaps to a shared, international repository) significantly increasing protections against its being stolen, diverted, or attacked.”
Until Bush launched GNEP in 2006, the USA had discouraged reprocessing at home and abroad for nearly three decades, with US officials contending that by refraining from pursuing such technologies, the USA could lead by example and persuade other countries to do so as well. The panel contended that this is “a notion that history has proven to be naïve,” noting that European countries and Japan (and Russia) have not abandoned their reprocessing activities.
The report did not note, however, that some countries such as the United Kingdom are planning to shut down or scale back their reprocessing facilities, viewing them as uneconomic. Nor did the panel note that the technology has not spread beyond those states to the much wider number of countries that have nuclear power plants but not nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, drawing on technical and business studies by four industry consortia, the DoE officials have been laying out their broad vision for the domestic side of GNEP. It includes dramatic technological, organisational, and financial changes in the US nuclear energy industry and in the way spent nuclear fuel is handled.
To begin with, the plan would shift much of the responsibility for handling spent nuclear fuel to a government-owned corporation akin to the Tennessee Valley Authority. This ‘new government entity’ (NGE) would be responsible for construction and operation of nuclear waste repositories, contracting with industry for construction and operation of reprocessing facilities, and contracting for the secure transport of nuclear fuel and waste. The DoE would only be tasked with research and development on new reprocessing technologies and reactors that would handle the new fuels they would produce.
This new entity would not rely on annual appropriations from Congress, but instead depend on fees for handling nuclear waste and reprocessing, and profits from the sales of the resulting fuels and uranium. Dennis Spurgeon, the DoE’s leading nuclear energy official, had hinted at such a step in November 2007.
The entity would be charged with bringing to fruition a two-stage plan for reprocessing. The first stage would involve technologies that are nearly ready for commercial deployment but offer few additional nonproliferation or waste management benefits to current technology. These technologies would separate the plutonium together with some of the uranium from spent fuel and reprocess them into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel that can be used in current light water reactors. The aim would be to have such a fairly basic US reprocessing facility in place by 2020-2025.
The second stage, which DoE officials said they did not expect to take place before 2050, would involve taking the spent MOX fuel and again reprocessing it. This process, however, would involve separating out of the spent fuel not only plutonium and uranium but other minor transuranic elements such as americium and neptunium. This fuel would burn in still-to-be-developed fast reactors that would rely on fast neutrons to fission plutonium and other elements in the spent fuel. These neutrons differ from thermal neutrons that have been slowed down by a moderator in a reactor, such as the water used in today’s standard nuclear plants that are fuelled with low enriched uranium. While thermal neutrons are highly efficient in fissioning certain isotopes of heavy elements, such as uranium-235 and plutonium-239, fast reactors can fission all actinides, including all plutonium isotopes (even if less efficiently).
Nuclear plant operators have not expressed strong views on either McCain’s or Obama’s favoured approach to dealing with spent fuel. They have welcomed the DoE’s suggestion of an NGE as a way of using the user fee for its intended purpose. These operators complain that despite paying nearly $20 billion to the government to fund storage of their nuclear waste in a permanent repository, the money has instead flowed into the general federal budget because of the lack of concrete movement on Yucca Mountain.
Henry B ‘Brew’ Barron, chief executive officer of the Constellation Nuclear Energy Group, which operates several US nuclear power plants told a Washington, DC audience on 24 June that he could either support the reprocessing elements of GNEP or other less ambitious and expensive alternatives such as building interim storage facilities until a permanent repository begins operation.
However, Congress has largely sided with experts such as the National Research Council, a think tank run by the National Academy of Sciences, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional watchdog agency. Both have strongly questioned GNEP’s domestic component.
An October 2007 Nuclear Research Council (NRC) report, commissioned by the DoE, concluded that the department should “not move forward” with the programme, specifically its proposal to build new commercial-scale facilities for reprocessing and for burning a new type of nuclear fuel. Citing a lack of urgency and appropriate technical knowledge, the NRC panel said the department should return to an earlier course in which it conducted a “less aggressive research program.”
In addition, an April 2008 GAO report, likewise took issue with current two-stage technology plans for GNEP. By comparison, the initiative’s original plans called for building smaller engineering-scale facilities to research and develop more advanced technologies.
“DoE’s accelerated approach of building commercial-scale facilities would likely require using unproven evolutions of existing technologies that would reduce radioactive waste and mitigate proliferation risks to a much lesser degree than anticipated from more advanced technologies,” the report said. It added: “DoE is unlikely to attract enough industry investment to avoid the need for a large amount of government funding for full-scale facilities.”
Therefore, the report recommended “that DoE reassess its preference for an accelerated approach to implementing GNEP.”
But the report also found that the engineering approach had its drawbacks. Like the current approach, the engineering-scale approach called for the construction of three types of facilities: a reprocessing plant to separate plutonium and other materials from spent reactor fuel and convert them into a new fuel; an advanced fast neutron reactor to use the new fuel; and a research and development facility.
The GAO concluded that the DoE had erred in planning to build an engineering-scale reprocessing plant before developing the reprocessing and other technologies that would be needed to know the design specifications for such a plant. The report recommended that the DoE defers building the plant until it has conducted “sufficient testing and development of recycled fuel to ensure that the output of such a plant is suitable for recycling.”
In response to such critiques, Congress last year sharply cut the administration’s proposed budget for the programme and restricted it to research. Capitol Hill appears to be on a similar course this year.
The Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives on 25 June cut specific funds for GNEP and approved only $120 million for the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), which funds reprocessing research integral to the programme. In February 2008, the administration had requested $302 million for AFCI.
In its accompanying report, the committee called for the AFCI funds to be spent only on research into the reduction of waste streams related to reprocessing, the design of safeguard measures for reprocessing facilities, and research on reducing the proliferation risk of reprocessing. As it did last year, it prohibited any funds from being spent on the design or construction of proposed facilities.
In addition, the House panel blocked the administration’s request for tens of millions of dollars directly linked to the partnership including those for smaller or “grid appropriate reactors” and those needed to manage the partnership, particularly efforts to recruit developing countries without nuclear capabilities (such as Ghana, Jordan, and Senegal) to join the partnership.
In marking up its version of the legislation 10 July, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $230 million for AFCI and called for making the development and qualification of recycled fuel a priority and for a “balanced portfolio” of reprocessing R&D that could be utilised for both fast and current thermal reactors. The partnership did not approve any funds for the grid-appropriate reactors.
The bills now must be approved by the full House and Senate and reconciled in a House-Senate conference committee before being sent to the president for signature.
GNEP and nonproliferation
Meanwhile, lawmakers have also expressed scepticism about GNEP’s nonproliferation benefits.
The Senate Armed Services Committee on 12 May approved a provision in a fiscal year 2009 defence authorisation bill that would bar US funds intended for nonproliferation programmes from being used for GNEP. Authorisation bills establish a policy framework and funding ceilings for programmes while appropriations bills dictate the actual funds that Congress spends on programmes.
A House version of the defence authorisation bill passed on 22 May likewise would not support the administration’s request for $6.9 million in fiscal 2009 nonproliferation funds to go to GNEP under the auspices of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency under the DoE.
In marking up the bill on 15 May, the House Armed Services Committee wrote in its accompanying report: “The committee finds NNSA’s proposed nonproliferation arguments for GNEP unpersuasive and is not convinced that GNEP will achieve its stated nonproliferation objectives. Rather, the committee is concerned about proliferation risks associated with GNEP. For these reasons, the committee does not support any funding for GNEP activities from within any NNSA Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program line.”
However, it is not clear if Congress will approve the authorisation bills or the spending measures before adjourning in a few months.
In particular, Senator Reid has said several times that it’s unlikely Congress will pass any fiscal 2009 spending bills this year and that, instead, Congress will approve a continuing resolution to fund the government at current levels until a new administration takes over. Democrats not only hope to win the White House but believe that they will have stronger majorities in both chambers after the November elections. GNEP supporters in any case are certain to suffer the loss of a major supporter with the pending retirement of Senator Pete Domenici (Republican, New Mexico), who has been a major champion of nuclear energy. And they could be in even more dire straits should Barack Obama be inaugurated on 20 January 2009.
Miles A. Pomper is the Editor-in-Chief of Arms Control Today and the author of GNEP Watch, a monthly publication of the Centre for International Governance Innovation
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