House Subcommittee to Mark Up Appropriations Bill with Nuclear Plan Tomorrow

Tomorrow, when the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee marks up the fiscal year 2007 spending bill for the Energy Department and the Army Corps of Engineers, it will include millions of dollars for a controversial program promoting nuclear fuel reprocessing and recycling plutonium and other explosive materials into fresh nuclear fuel. (The mark up is scheduled to begin at 11 am in the Rayburn House Office Building in room 2362-B.)

Debate likely will center on whether the committee will honor the Energy Department's request for $250 million for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), or cut it because of budget constraints. But the bigger question is whether Congress should be funding such a program at all, say nuclear experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Full implementation of GNEP would cost U.S. taxpayers at least tens of billions of dollars to support nuclear-fuel reprocessing plants and fast-neutron reactors to "burn up" the separated weapons-usable nuclear materials. And the program would end a three-decade-old policy of maintaining a technological wall between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Reprocessing technology reduces the volume of nuclear fuel that has to be disposed of by allowing it to be recycled for reuse in nuclear reactors. But the process involves separating nuclear materials - and disseminating technical knowledge - that could be used to build nuclear weapons. It also generates a larger volume of shorter lived nuclear wastes requiring further processing and storage, creating more immediate environmental hazards.

"Spent-fuel reprocessing and plutonium-fueled fast reactors have proven to be commercial disasters," said Christopher Paine, an NRDC senior nuclear analyst. "Soviet-style state socialism in the nuclear power sector is not the answer to the world's energy woes."

Paine and Dr. Thomas Cochran, director of NRDC's Nuclear Program, wrote a critique of GNEP, which is available here. Their analysis, "Peddling Plutonium," begins with an executive summary, which is pasted below. Both authors are available for comment.

Peddling Plutonium: An Analysis of the President's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

President Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) plan is certainly bold. But boldness should never be mistaken for wisdom, or even as evidence of rationality. The president wants U.S. taxpayers to foot a $100 billion plus bill to develop, over the course of the next several decades, a global nuclear enterprise to extract plutonium and uranium from spent fuel and recycle it as fresh fuel, first in current light-water reactors, and then later in a new generation of liquid-metal cooled fast burner reactors. The arguments against this plan can be summarized as follows.

  • GNEP is an extravagant, unaffordable excursion into nuclear state-socialism on a global scale. Implementing just the initial demonstration phase of the GNEP will cost taxpayers $30 billion to $40 billion over the next 15 years without generating a single kilowatt of commercially available electric power. Funding requests for plutonium recycle related programs total more than $1 billion in fiscal year 2007. The entire scheme represents a bizarre departure for a president and party professing abhorrence of excessive federal spending and reverence for the workings of the free market.

  • Spent-fuel reprocessing and plutonium-fueled fast reactors are well-proven commercial disasters. The United States, Europe and Japan spent tens of billions of dollars in the 1970s and 1980s trying to develop plutonium fast breeder reactors (like the proposed GNEP "advanced burner reactors," but with uranium "blankets" added to "breed" more plutonium than is consumed in the reactor). These fast reactors proved to be uneconomical, highly unreliable, and prone to fires due to leaking liquid sodium coolant, which burns spontaneously when it comes in contact with air or water.

  • There is no technical silver bullet available that will appreciably diminish the risks of widespread plutonium use in the civil sector. Contrary to the assertions of GNEP proponents, the proposed nuclear fuel cycle will increase the proliferation risks relative to the fuel cycle used in the United States, in which the spent fuel is never reprocessed and the plutonium is never reused commercially. GNEP proponents maintain that a new reprocessing technique, called UREX-plus, offers increased "proliferation resistance" However, the technique produces a mixture of plutonium and minor transuranic elements with a total radiation dose-rate far below the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) threshold for "self-protection" (i.e. a level of radioactivity making even short exposures to the material very hazardous to human health). Moreover, the critical mass of the UREX-plus mixed product is intermediate between weapon-grade plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, and therefore can be used in nuclear weapons.

  • Current international safeguards cannot monitor and measure the flow of nuclear material in reprocessing and enrichment plants with the continuity and accuracy required to promptly detect diversion from peaceful uses. Current techniques applied to these nuclear "bulk-handling" facilities are insufficient to meet the IAEA's standard for "timely warning" of a lost, stolen or diverted bomb-quantity of nuclear material. Moreover, the IAEA's thresholds for defining such "significant quantities" are four to eight times higher than the technically correct minimum values, suggesting that it is virtually impossible for the agency to determine that nuclear material is missing from such a facility within the time period required to convert it into a weapon.

  • By rashly launching GNEP, President Bush is jumping the gun by a century or more. Given the inherent complexities, massive costs, environmental hazards, and security risks involved in plutonium recycling, programs like GNEP should be attempted only when, and if, there is an overwhelming economic and urgent climate-change case for doing so. That is not the case today, when alternative nuclear and new alternative energy technologies are available at dramatically lower cost. Given the rapid technical and economic progress of renewable energy technologies, distributed cogeneration and biofuels, and continuing improvements in the efficiency and cost of uranium enrichment services for conventional nuclear fuels, the sun may never rise on the "plutonium economy."

In sum, an energy technology that creates millions of gallons of highly radioactive mixed wastes requiring expensive treatment and disposal can hardly be called "clean." A plutonium fuel-cycle plagued by radiation leaks, sodium fires, and periodic alarms about missing plutonium in its material balance accounts can hardly be called "safe." And a "global partnership" that further develops, disseminates, and trains tens of thousands of people in the complex chemical techniques for separating long-lived weapon-usable materials, like plutonium, from self-protecting, intensely radioactive fission byproducts such as cesium and strontium, can hardly be called "proliferation-resistant."

No doubt, the plutonium lobby will persist in ignoring these risks and proffering its relentless forecasts of a golden era of technological progress and declining costs, somewhere just over the rainbow. This kind of salesmanship has been going on for more than 50 years.

The plutonium pork barrel is back again, but it's more cosmopolitan this time around. French, Russian and Japanese government agencies and corporations (in the state-socialist plutonium economy, bureaucrats and businessmen are often one and the same) are now part of the mix. And if news reports are to be believed, President Bush has just promised Indian officials that they, too, can join the GNEP, soaking up whatever the "partnership" has to offer in the way of novel reprocessing and fast-reactor technology, so they can put it to good use in their parallel civil and military breeder-reactor programs.

One can only hope that most members of Congress will have the good sense to stay out of the barrel this time around. For those who don't, just remember, this pork barrel is packed with funny numbers and phony technical promises, making the political footing a bit slippery. Legislators could wind up wasting billions of taxpayer dollars in the likely event the GNEP scheme proves infeasible, but even more money should the scheme "succeed" in becoming the massive, money-losing government enterprise that peddling plutonium on a global scale requires.