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October 2003 -- The Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology is pursuing two research programs that could pose a significant threat to U.S. national security. These programs, Generation IV (Gen IV) and the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), will identify, design and ultimately deploy new and advanced commercial nuclear power reactor and fuel cycle technologies.

At first blush such a goal might sound benign, in the same way the U.S. "atoms for peace" campaign in the 1950s appeared to be a responsible way to promote the use of civilian nuclear power and at the same time curb nuclear weapons proliferation. But a close examination of these programs shows that they would certainly assist non-nuclear weapons states -- some which used to have clandestine weapon programs -- in developing a capability to rapidly produce large quantities of nuclear weapon-usable materials by helping them construct pilot reprocessing plants, train experts in plutonium and actinide chemistry and plutonium metallurgy, and encourage them to reprocess nuclear fuel to recover plutonium.1 And in the case of an unstable political regime, the two programs could encourage the spread of nuclear weapon materials to other states, or even terrorists.

DOE is sponsoring these potentially dangerous research programs in several countries. In South Korea, for example, the agency is promoting research on reprocessing and plutonium chemistry and metallurgy research -- while at the same time the United States is trying to curb reprocessing and nuclear weapon development next door in North Korea. DOE programs also are fostering alternative routes to nuclear weapon-usable materials in Argentina and Brazil, two non-weapon states that formerly had clandestine nuclear weapons programs and now have only five nuclear power reactors between them.

The Generation IV Program

Gen IV was conceived as a national effort to identify a new reactor type that could compete with fossil-fuel plants within 30 to 50 years and be safer and more proliferation-resistant than today's light-water reactors, which use a "once-through" fuel cycle, directly disposing their spent nuclear fuel in a geologic repository. Last year DOE internationalized the Gen IV effort, organizing the Generation-IV International Forum, an effort by 10 countries that agreed to jointly develop six nuclear energy systems. The countries included five non-weapon states that formerly had clandestine nuclear weapon programs -- South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Switzerland -- as well as Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and the United States. The Gen IV International Forum, however, tossed aside DOE's earlier criteria for developing Generation IV reactors -- which were that the new reactor concept had to compete with fossil fuels and be safer and more proliferation-resistant than current U.S. reactors -- and instead decided to jointly develop several nuclear reactor types that previously had failed or were abandoned: sodium-cooled, gas-cooled and lead-cooled fast reactors, and the molten salt reactor. The Gen IV International Forum also decided to develop the supercritical water-cooled reactor and the very high temperature gas-cooled reactor. Three of the six reactor types are "fast reactors" whose fuel cycles typically rely on nuclear fuel reprocessing and recycling plutonium, which is sometimes called a "closed fuel cycle" because the plutonium is theoretically recycled through the reactor before disposal. The molten salt reactor is not a fast reactor, but it too relies on a closed fuel cycle. The supercritical water-cooled reactor and the very high temperature gas-cooled reactor can operate either on a closed or open fuel cycle.

Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham went to Tokyo in September 2002 and blessed the Generation-IV International Forum effort, calling it an "unprecedented accomplishment." The secretary's enthusiasm was woefully misplaced. The fast reactor types and the reactors operating on a closed fuel cycle have no chance of competing economically with conventional light water reactors when operating on a once-through fuel cycle, and a number of the designs already have proven to be failures. For example, several industrialized countries, including the United States, France, Japan, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and the former Soviet Union, together spent tens of billions of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to commercialize the plutonium breeder, a sodium-cooled fast reactor technology.2 The molten salt reactor research and development program was abandoned in this country in favor of the ill-fated liquid metal reactor. And the lead-cooled fast reactor is a successor to a failed Russian submarine reactor program.

In September 2003, the director of DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy claimed that deployment of the first commercial Gen IV thermal reactor could occur sometime between 2020 and 2035 and that a demonstration Gen IV fast reactor could be up and running by 2030.3 There is no economic evidence to support this claim. The Office of Nuclear Energy director also claimed that France, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom likely would work with DOE to develop a 300 megawatt to 600 megawatt electric gas-cooled fast breeder, and Japan, South Korea and Switzerland would likely partner with DOE to develop a smaller 50 megawatt to 150 megawatt electric lead-cooled fast breeder.

The Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative Program

The Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, the new name for what was previously DOE's Spent Fuel Pyroprocessing and Transmutation Program, first surfaced in a January 2003 Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology report to Congress and has been incorporated into the FY 2004 defense budget request to Congress.4 Initially, AFCI featured two major elements: Series 1 and Series 2.

AFCI Series 1 effort, which DOE quietly dropped in 2003, called for the construction of a massive commercial reprocessing plant by 2015, ostensibly to avoid having to build a second geologic repository along with the proposed Yucca Mountain repository for spent nuclear fuel.5 The new U.S. commercial reprocessing plant was to have been capable of reprocessing 2,000-metric-tons-per-year (MT/y). If one allows for the down times typical of other commercial reprocessing plants, the proposed U.S. plant's design capacity would have had to have been a staggering 3,000 to 4,000 MT/y. By comparison, in 1995 there were nine operating commercial and dual use (commercial and military) reprocessing plants worldwide, with a combined capacity of 5,200 MT/y. The largest of the commercial plants was the THORP plant at Sellafield in the United Kingdom, which had a capacity of 1,200 MT/y. The largest plant under construction is the 800 MT/y Rokkasho plant in Aomori Prefecture, Japan.

AFCI Series 2 has a longer-term objective to develop new reprocessing technologies and fast reactors for transmuting nuclear waste. DOE argues that developing these technologies is warranted because they could reduce the volume of high-level nuclear waste, making it easier to address long-term hazards and the uncertainties of geologic disposal.6 But the agency will not be able to meet any of these objectives because, if for no other reason, both AFCI Series 1 and 2 call for constructing grossly uneconomical fuel cycle technologies.

The Economic Impact

Closed fuel cycles that rely on spent fuel reprocessing are extremely uneconomical. This is not a theoretical point. British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd. announced in 2003 that it would shut down the THORP plant in 2010, due to the lack of reprocessing contracts. The 800 MT/y Rokkacho plant has been an economic disaster for Japan. Rokkasho is more than five years behind schedule and projected construction costs have spiraled higher than $18 billion. Before dropping the idea, DOE had suggested that a U.S. commercial reprocessing plant would avoid the need for a second repository, but the cost of the Rokkasho plant -- four to five times smaller than the plant DOE proposes for the United States -- already exceeds the proposed construction cost of the Yucca Mountain project.

That is just the first problem. Closed fuel cycles necessarily rely on nuclear fuel assemblies made with recycled plutonium recovered from reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel. The plutonium is fabricated into new fuel called "mixed-oxide fuel" (MOX). Even if the reprocessing plant construction cost were zero, the cost of fabricating a fresh MOX fuel assembly made with recycled plutonium would be several times the cost of an assembly made with low-enriched uranium fuel. This is not speculation, but an estimate based on charges for reprocessing services at the French Cogema and United Kingdom BNFL plants at La Hague and Sellafield, respectively, and the MOX fabrication costs in Europe. In a deregulated utility industry, there is simply no way that any sensible business would pay these astronomical costs. Advanced closed fuel cycles are likely to be even more costly because of the high cost of reprocessing and plutonium fuel fabrication, and because they will be tied to fast reactors that are far more costly to construct than conventional light-water reactors.

Thus, AFCI series 2 research and development would not lead to a commercially viable, competitive nuclear fuel cycle. Nevertheless, if non-weapon states begin work on these technologies, they will develop the expertise, facilities and materials to build nuclear weapons.7

Reprocessing, the Breeder Reactor and U.S. Non-Proliferation Policy

Until the mid-1970s, U.S. energy policy called for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, recycling separated plutonium, and developing advanced fast breeder reactors, which depend on recycled plutonium recovered from spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. Several efforts to make reprocessing and fast reactors commercially viable failed.

Nuclear Fuel Services, for example, operated a 300-ton-per-year commercial spent fuel reprocessing facility near West Valley, New York, from 1966 to 1972, when it shut down the facility for safety reasons and did not reopen because it was no longer economical to do so. The Nuclear Fuel Services facility was the first and only private plant in the United States to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. General Electric completed its Midwest Fuel Recovery Plant at Morris, Illinois, in 1974, but immediately declared it inoperable and never used it. In 1970, Allied General Nuclear Services began constructing a 1,500-ton-per-year reprocessing plant at Barnwell, South Carolina. The Barnwell facility was due to begin operation in 1974, but prior to completion the Environmental Protection Agency demanded that the company reconfigure the back end of the plant to solidify the high-level radioactive waste. To complete the plant, Allied General sought financial assistance from the Energy Research and Development Agency (ERDA), the predecessor to DOE. But in May 1974, India detonated a nuclear device made from plutonium separated at its "civil" reprocessing facility at the Bhaba Atomic Research Center at Trombey, prompting the Ford administration to revise U.S. policy on reprocessing to reflect proliferation threats from separated plutonium. ERDA declined to subsidize the completion of the Barnwell plant, and construction and licensing were further delayed.

In a 1976 policy statement, President Gerald Ford declared, "The avoidance of proliferation must take precedence over economic interests." He also stated that U.S. domestic policies must be changed to defer "the commercialization of chemical reprocessing of nuclear fuel which results in the separation of plutonium."8 In 1977, shortly after taking office, President Jimmy Carter, also citing concerns about the consequences of proliferation, "defer[red] indefinitely the commercial reprocessing and recycling of plutonium in the U.S."9 Allied General never completed the Barnwell plant.

President Carter also terminated the licensing of a fast reactor, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor. Congress continued to fund construction of the reactor's components, but would not permit assembly of these components without a license. In 1983, Congress terminated funding for the breeder reactor program, which lead to the demise of the U.S. plutonium breeder program.10 President Ronald Reagan lifted the ban on reprocessing in 1981, but domestic commercial reprocessing plants and plutonium recycling no longer were considered economically viable.

President Bill Clinton issued his own policy statement on reprocessing in 1993:

The United States does not encourage the civil use of plutonium and, accordingly, does not itself engage in plutonium reprocessing for either nuclear power or nuclear explosive purposes. The United States, however, will maintain its existing commitments regarding the use of plutonium in civil nuclear programs in Western Europe and Japan.11

This policy has remained in effect until Argonne National Laboratory tried to reverse it in 2002.

The Revival of the Breeder Program

Without question, the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative has its roots in the defunct U.S. plutonium breeder reactor program. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago was the lead DOE laboratory responsibility for sodium-cooled fast reactor safety research, while Argonne-West at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) conducted breeder fuel testing and reprocessing research. After Congress cancelled the Clinch River Breeder Reactor in 1983, DOE kept the entrenched plutonium breeder bureaucracy on life support to develop the Integral Fast Reactor and pyroprocessing, an alternative means of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel based on an electro-refining process.12

The Integral Fast Reactor concept envisioned that pyroprocessing spent fuel would take place in a facility adjacent to a reactor and some radioactive transuranium elements would remain mixed with the plutonium, making the otherwise separated plutonium less vulnerable to theft. The 62.5 megawatt-thermal (20 megawatt-electric) Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) used a prototype for testing Integral Fast Reactor fuel. The concept was highly uneconomical, however, and would have represented a significant proliferation risk because non-weapon states could have converted pyroprocessing facilities to produce and separate weapons-grade plutonium. DOE therefore terminated the Integral Fast Reactor program in September 1994, but it kept alive the pyroprocessing program by continuing reprocessing research using Experimental Breeder Reactor-II spent fuel.

Pyroprocessing began to fall back into favor when the current Bush administration took office. Senior Argonne lab officials convinced Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, the National Energy Policy Development Group, to add the following language to the May 2002 National Energy Plan:

...in the context of developing advanced fuel cycles and next generation technologies for nuclear energy, the United States should reexamine its policies to allow for research, development and deployment of fuel conditioning methods (such as pyroprocessing) that reduce waste streams and enhance proliferation resistance. In doing so the United States will continue to discourage the accumulation of separated plutonium worldwide.13

This call for a change in U.S. nonproliferation policy was made without vetting the proposal or language through the departments of State, Energy or Defense.

On July 15, 2002, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced a major change in the INEEL's mission, establishing the laboratory as the nation's leading center for nuclear energy research and development. INEEL is to become the "command center" for the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology's nuclear energy research and development enterprise, and take the lead role in developing the department's next-generation nuclear reactor, fuel cycle systems, and space nuclear power and propulsion systems.14

Given that the agency put the remnants of the defunct plutonium breeder program in charge of advanced reactor and fuel cycle development, it is not surprising that the focus of this effort is to reverse U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy and develop spent nuclear fuel reprocessing technologies and fast nuclear reactors. DOE also placed breeder program remains at Argonne and Argonne-West in charge of the Gen IV and AFCI programs, and the Gen IV International Forum. The unfortunate consequence of DOE promoting fast reactor development, actinide chemistry and plutonium metallurgy at home and abroad is that it will directly promote the spread of nuclear weapons technology around the world.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and developments in North Korea and Iran, it is mind-boggling that the Bush administration has reversed decades of bipartisan U.S. nonproliferation policy by promoting the spread of plutonium separation technology. As in the case of the Bush administration's environmental policy, it appears that its nuclear policy has more to do with repaying favors to corporate campaign contributors and backroom politics than scientific evidence or national security.15

last revised 10.02.03


1. Nuclear weapons can be made from "explosive fissionable material," defined as any fissionable material that can be, or potentially can be, assembled into a bare or reflected fast neutron supercritical state resulting in an explosive disassembly. Fissionable materials are isotopes capable of being split or "fissioned." A "fast neutron supercritical state" implies that the material is capable of sustaining a rapidly increasing nuclear chain reaction without having to slow down the neutrons emitted from fissioning nuclei. The most commonly used explosive fissionable materials are the fissile materials, plutonium and high-enriched uranium. Fissile materials are isotopes that also are capable of being fissioned by a low-energy (i.e., slow moving) neutron. Most of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex was devoted to producing plutonium and enriched uranium. Uranium was either enriched to high concentrations of uranium-235 for direct use in nuclear weapons or it was irradiated in reactors and chemically separated, otherwise known as "reprocessed," to recover plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.

2. Congress killed the U.S. Clinch River Breeder Reactor, a demonstration plutonium breeder, in 1983, before construction began.

3. William D. Magwood, "An Update on DOE's Nuclear Energy Agenda to the Board of Radioactive Waste Management," September 3, 2003.

4. "Report to Congress on Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative: The Future Path for Advanced Spent Fuel Treatment and Transmutation Research," U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology, January 2003.

5. In its January 2003 report on AFCI to Congress, DOE noted that removing uranium from spent fuel reduces the volume of the material requiring geological disposition by 96 percent. DOE misled Congress by implying that this will reduce the required geologic storage capacity. The repository capacity is a function of the near-field heat loading around the canisters, which depends on the fission product inventory, and not the uranium inventory, in the spent fuel. Unstated in the report, the DOE plan is to separate out key fission products -- cesium and strontium -- encapsulate them, and store or bury the capsules separately, which would require forced-air cooling.

6. The transmutation process most likely would lead to an increase in overall heath risks because radioactivity releases from the reprocessing and fuel fabrication plants would likely exceed the avoided releases from the repository of transmuted isotopes. Thus, DOE proposes to spend huge sums of taxpayers' money on a program, which, if implemented, would increase the incidence of cancer resulting from the nuclear fuel cycle.

7. Reprocessing followed by transmutation of actinides in fast reactors is even less competitive. Not only would the fuel cycle costs be several times higher, but to transmute actinides, approximately one in four reactors should be fast reactors. There is ample evidence from failed breeder programs in the United States, France and Japan that fast reactors would cost considerably more than conventional light water reactors. See discussion below.

8. President Gerald Ford, Statement on Nuclear Policy, October 28, 1976.

9. President Jimmy Carter, Presidential Directive/NSC-8, March 24, 1977.

10. The 400 MW (thermal) Fast Flux Test Facility, a prototype and fuel test facility for the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, continued to operate successfully from startup in 1980 until April 1992 as a research facility to test advanced breeder reactor fuels, materials and components. In December 1993, DOE ordered the Fast Flux Test Facility to begin shutdown because it did not have an economically viable mission. From 1994 through 1997, fuel was removed from the reactor vessel for storage. On December 19, 2001, DOE announced its decision to permanently deactivate the Fast Flux Test Facility. DOE already had permanently shut down the older and smaller (62.5 MW (thermal), 20 MW (electric)) Experimental Breeder Reactor-II in 1994 when federal funding was terminated.

11. The White House, "Fact Sheet: Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy," September 27, 1993.

12. Pyroprocessing is a term used to refer to electrolytic separation of the contents of spent fuel. The process was developed for use with metallic fuels. If the starting material is spent oxide fuel, the oxide must first be reduced to a metal before electrolytic separation.

13. Office of the Vice President, "National Energy Policy," Report of the National Energy Policy Development Group, May 2001, p. 5-17.

14. FY 2004 Budget Request to Congress, OMB, February 2003, Energy Supply/Nuclear Energy/Executive Summary, p. 19.

15. The Gen IV and AFCI programs have the strong support of Republican Sen. Pete Domenici. His state, New Mexico, is the home of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which strongly promoted tramsmutation research and development using an LANL accelerator. Another proponent of reprocessing is Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, the home of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Last year, Craig reportedly received more money from electric utilities than from any other industry. (See the Washington Post, "Utilities Grasp at Power," Blaine Harden, May 4, 2003, p. A3.)

last revised 10/2/2003

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