The research and development component of the U.S. Department of Energy's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a program that aims to reprocess spent nuclear fuel which could then be shared with partner countries, should not go forward at its current pace, says a new report from the National Research Council. DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, of which GNEP is a part, should instead assign the highest priority to facilitating the startup of new commercial nuclear power plants, a program that is currently falling behind schedule due to funding gaps.
Amid renewed interest in nuclear power, the Office of Nuclear Energy's budget has grown nearly 70 percent since 2003. In light of this growth, the administration's 2006 budget requested that funds be set aside for the Research Council to review and prioritize all of the office's programs, which besides reprocessing and new plant assistance include development of new types of nuclear reactors, the use of nuclear energy to create hydrogen, and the upgrade of facilities at the Idaho National Laboratory.
The purpose of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel is to remove materials from the radioactive waste that can be recycled for use at another plant. In the past, the United States has resisted reprocessing because the methods available at the time created a plutonium byproduct that would have increased the risk of nuclear proliferation. But in recent years the federal government began to reconsider reprocessing as new technologies emerged that could recycle the spent nuclear fuel without separating plutonium. This process is a main technical goal of GNEP; the committee that wrote the report did not review or comment on the international aspects of the partnership.
However, the technologies required for achieving GNEP's goals are too early in development to justify DOE's accelerated schedule for construction of commercial facilities that would use these technologies, the report says. DOE claims that the program will save time and money if pursued on the commercial scale, but the committee believes that the opposite will likely be true and found no economic justification.
And although a stated goal of the program is to reduce the overall amount of radioactive waste, which would in turn decrease the need for a second geological repository in addition to Yucca Mountain, it was not clear to the committee that such a need currently exists. Moreover, there has been insufficient peer review of the program.
While all 17 members of the committee concluded that the GNEP R&D program, as currently planned, should not be pursued, 15 of the members said that the less-aggressive reprocessing research program that preceded the current one should be. However, if DOE returns to the earlier program, called the Advance Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), it should not commit to a major demonstration or deployment of reprocessing unless there is a clear economic, national security, or environmental reason to do so.
Two committee members advocated holding DOE's spending on reprocessing research to pre-AFCI levels and that DOE should not develop commercial reprocessing technologies beyond the early laboratory stage. In addition, three other committee members believe a technology not currently being explored by GNEP would be better suited for reprocessing.
Although the GNEP R&D program should be scaled back, the Office of Nuclear Energy should place greater emphasis on the Nuclear Power 2010 program, the committee said. Key elements of this program include identifying sites for new nuclear power plants, completing the design engineering of advanced light water reactors, and assisting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in its efforts to grant both construction and operating licenses in one action. The office has focused on many parts of the program, such as finalizing designs, and has established a good working relationship with industry, but overall progress has been slower than expected, the committee found.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and industry need to improve the pace of specific licensing reviews for nuclear power plants, avoiding review of previously settled issues and setting a tighter schedule. If nuclear power is indeed going to play an increased role in meeting U.S. energy needs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Nuclear Power 2010 needs full funding in all aspects of the program, the committee said. While an increase in funding has been proposed in the administration's fiscal year 2008 budget, it would not be enough for the program to meet all of its goals.
Similarly, the committee found that another program of the office, called Generation IV, is unlikely to achieve its goal of a next-generation nuclear power plant in operation by 2017 because of the focus on GNEP. The office's Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative, a program to generate hydrogen using nuclear energy, is dependent on the success of the Generation IV program, so its budget and timetable should reflect this connection, the report says.
The committee also reviewed the Idaho National Laboratory, which represents a significant part of the Office of Nuclear Energy's management responsibilities and budget. While the site will provide the office with important capabilities for research and development of nuclear technology, funding for the program is substantially less than what is necessary to upgrade the facilities.
The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.
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