Will Hurt U.S. Credibility on Non-Proliferation, Add to Nuclear Waste

WASHINGTON (November 14, 2005) -- The U.S. Senate today approved $130 million for nuclear fuel reprocessing projects that will compromise efforts to keep dangerous nuclear technology out of unsafe hands, and substantially increase the flow of nuclear waste for which there is no established means of disposal, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The FY2006 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill conference report, which was approved by the House last week, provides $50 million for a pilot program of advanced plutonium separation technology, and approximately $80 million to continue spent fuel reprocessing research under the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI). The legislation will now go to President Bush for his signature.

"Congress is taking a giant step backward by advancing spent nuclear fuel reprocessing programs. This is just a bad idea for a whole list of reasons," said Dr. Thomas Cochran, Director of NRDC's Nuclear Program. "These projects threaten our national security, our public health and our safety. And they are wildly expensive. This funding would be better spent finding safer sites for deep geologic disposal with strict, protective public health standards."

Reprocessing is a method of extracting plutonium, uranium and other radionuclides from spent fuel elements withdrawn from nuclear power reactors. The plutonium and uranium obtained from reprocessing can be used in nuclear weapons or in new fuel elements for generating electricity from nuclear power plants. The United States has not engaged in commercial reprocessing for nearly three decades.

Reprocessing to obtain plutonium is at the root of some of the greatest threats to U.S. national security. Renewed American investment in reprocessing will make it more difficult to negotiate non-proliferation arrangements with countries like North Korea and Iran. Cooperative international research and development on reprocessing, as proposed by the Bush Administration, will encourage research and development of civil plutonium use around the globe at the very time U.S. diplomats and the International Atomic Energy Agency are seeking to discourage the spread of such capabilities to additional states.

While unlikely to ever be commercialized, these research and development activities will train experts in actinide chemistry and plutonium metallurgy, a proliferation concern in its own right.

The fission products that are left behind from reprocessing are known as high-level radioactive waste. High-level waste, along with the spent nuclear fuel rods is incredibly radioactive and dangerous and requires very carefully considered disposal. Energy Department sites in Washington, South Carolina and Idaho currently hold millions of gallons of reprocessing waste.

None of the existing or proposed nuclear fuel cycles that rely on reprocessing are close to being economical. They are, in fact, enormously expensive. It costs billions of dollars to construct, operate, and decommission facilities. A 1999 Department of Energy report concluded that the reprocessing technologies now under consideration to address waste management concerns would cost a staggering $280 billion over 118 years, the lengthy period of committed investment required to assure that wastes are properly managed.