IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

U.S. plan for nuclear cartel faces reality check

One of the most ambitious components of current U.S. energy policy is the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP.  Proponents promise it will change the world but that foes say could lead to weapons proliferation.'s Mike Stuckey reports.
The Portsmouth uranium enrichment plant near Piketon, Ohio, is under study as a possible site for facilities that would be part of the ambitious Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.David Kohl / Associated Press

To Greg Simonton and other civic leaders in Piketon, Ohio, population 1,973, it’s all about the jobs. Jobs to bolster the economy of the Appalachian burg where the double-digit unemployment rate is always near the highest in the state. Jobs to replace more than 1,500 that have been wiped out over the past decade with the downsizing of a uranium enrichment plant. Jobs that are so attractive they have led Simonton’s nonprofit agency to pair up with a private enterprise in a venture that could eventually bring Piketon thousands of tons a year of some of the most toxic nuclear waste on the planet.

Piketon is one of 11 communities recently awarded a total of $16 million in study grants by the U.S. Department of Energy. The grants are to be used to determine if they would be suitable sites for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, a hotly debated proposal that proponents promise will change the world.

Unveiled by the Bush administration early last year, GNEP envisions a system in which developing nations would receive nuclear power plants and fuel from the West in return for agreeing not to develop their own nuclear technology. The plan hinges on the controversial element of reprocessing spent nuclear rods to produce fuel that can be burned at GNEP plants, an activity that has never been done commercially in the United States.

GNEP supporters say not only will it power up the Third World, it will boost the U.S. nuclear industry, greatly reduce nuclear waste and air pollution and avoid the further spread of nuclear weapons.

Opponents say the program has the same problem as conventional nuclear power: It’s impossibly expensive.But it’s GNEP’s added element of nuclear fuel reprocessing, shelved for more than 30 years as unsafe and unnecessary in the United States, that really inflames critics of the program.

The race for toxic waste
The criticism has not deterred the Department of Energy and job-hungry communities that vied for the study grants. “We are very excited about the opportunity to take a look at this,” Simonton said after Assistant Secretary of Energy Dennis Spurgeon announced in November that the Piketon group was among the grant recipients.

The area’s congresswoman, Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt, was equally enthusiastic, saying the grant “will go a long way toward future economic development opportunities and may bring thousands of jobs to the area.”

Simonton directs the Southern Ohio Diversification Initiative, a nonprofit whose purpose is to create jobs in a region hit hard by the layoffs at the Portsmouth uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, owned by the Energy Department and operated by the United States Enrichment Corp., currently the only U.S. firm in the enrichment business.

What better way to do that, figured Simonton and his partner, Cleveland entrepreneur and former Enrichment Corp. board member Dan T. Moore II, than to find a new nuclear purpose for a 3,714-acre facility that has been processing radioactive materials for 52 years, first for weapons at the height of the Cold War and later for commercial nuclear power plants?

Politicians in other communities that received GNEP grants also expressed eagerness to cash in on what they believe could be an economic bonanza. “These nuclear fuel recycling facilities would firmly establish our state as the leader in this field,” said Republican Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico, where the DOE awarded two study grants. "This is an exciting opportunity for East Tennessee,” echoed Republican Rep. Zach Wamp, whose district includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory, another potential GNEP site.

Welcoming locals are just part of what senior Harvard nuclear researcher Matthew Bunn describes as a large and “unwieldy coalition” that has kept the GNEP proposal afloat despite serious questions about its technical feasibility, concerns over its potential to spread nuclear weapons materiel, doubts that nuclear “have-not” nations will submit to a Western fuel and technology cabal and tepid support and a lack of funding from Congress.

That coalition includes the national nuclear labs, which see the potential for billions in research funding, and some players in the industry, who hope for lucrative contracts as part of GNEP and the general growth of the nuclear power industry that they expect will accompany it.

Cover for waste dump stalemate?
And there appears to be a growing faction that sees it as at least temporary cover for long-delayed efforts to open a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev., a vital component if the nuclear power industry’s predictions of a “renaissance” are to be realized.

But Energy Department spokesman Craig Stevens denied that finding an interim storage for waste is a GNEP goal.

It’s the "stated policies" that matter, he told “This is a big thing. If it’s successful and we can make it work, and make it attractive enough at an economic level, this will change the way we power the world.”

The proposal set off strong protests in anti-nuclear and non-proliferation camps, because it reintroduced the reprocessing of spent reactor fuel to the U.S. nuclear landscape. The critics say the practice would make it far easier for terrorists to get their hands on plutonium that could be used to make crude nuclear weapons. That concern is the major reason reprocessing was banned under the Ford and Carter administrations.

The argument for reprocessing
GNEP proponents maintain that reprocessing — which the nuclear industry and the Department of Energy have taken to calling "recycling" — has the twin benefits of cutting down on nuclear waste and ensuring a rich fuel supply for hundreds of new reactors.

In the “once-through” fuel cycle currently used in U.S. nuclear reactors, thousands of tons of uranium ore are mined and processed to produce a relatively small amount of fuel. Once the fuel has been used, it is highly radioactive and must be stored for years in pools of water before it has cooled enough to be placed in concrete casks and eventually transferred to a permanent disposal site.

The only such U.S. site under development, at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, has faced political and regulatory hurdles for decades and is not expected to receive waste for at least 10 years, if ever. That’s currently the most daunting obstacle for the nuclear power industry, which wants to build more plants and thus create more waste.

Reprocessing advocates say that 95 percent of current nuclear waste, chiefly uranium and plutonium, is still rich with energy that could be harnessed by new “recycling” technology. The process could be repeated until virtually all of the energy is sucked out of the waste, allowing far more widespread use of nuclear power and drastically reducing the amount of permanent disposal space required.

The problem with plutonium
The problem with that logic, opponents counter, is that reprocessing would make it more likely that plutonium — the material of choice for nuclear bomb makers — could fall into the wrong hands. When it remains mixed with other components of highly radioactive spent fuel, the waste is "self-protecting" because it is quickly fatal to anyone who tries to handle it without specialized equipment and technical know-how. But once plutonium is separated from the other waste via reprocessing, it can be handled without any immediate danger to a would-be bomber's health.

“Plutonium itself is not a major radiation hazard,” explained Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “You can carry weapons-grade plutonium around in your hands for hours and you’re not going to sustain a severe radiation injury. And it only takes maybe 10 pounds to make a nuclear weapon.”

As a result, foes say the amounts of plutonium that would be produced in commercial settings under the GNEP scenario would greatly increase the chances that it could fall into terrorists’ hands.

“Do you really want more bomb-grade plutonium floating around the world?” asked Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for the anti-nuclear environmental group Greenpeace.

“Reprocessing is a very dangerous technology,” said Lyman. “The Department of Energy is in love with the idea of reprocessing. They at first claimed that the purpose behind GNEP was to develop new types of reprocessing that would not pose the same proliferation risks as conventional reprocessing and would not produce separated plutonium. But in fact none of the ideas that the Department of Energy proposed is new.”

Current commercial reprocessing technology, like that practiced by the French firm Areva, extracts plutonium and uranium from spent fuel and produces "mixed oxide" or MOX fuel that can be used in conventional reactors. The remaining high-level wastes are "vitrified," or sealed up in glass, and  stored. But GNEP's goal is to also recycle that waste and turn it into fuel to be burned in a new generation of reactors.

New techniques touted
GNEP backers insist that new reprocessing techniques can extract all of the materials for fresh fuel from nuclear waste in ways that greatly limit proliferation threats. At a September hearing before a Senate panel, Dr. Alan S. Hanson of Areva, which hopes to be a key participant in GNEP, testified that a “phased approach” would avoid separation of pure plutonium, limit its concentration in other mixtures and develop “advanced safeguards” to protect it.

But a "GNEP Strategic Plan" released earlier this month by the Energy Department acknowledged  that "there are  limits to the nonproliferation benefits offered by any of the advanced chemical separations technologies, which generally can be modified to produce plutonium.” Nonetheless, the plan says that GNEP’s broader goals and security procedures will be a net plus to global nonproliferation efforts.

Because of that confidence, and high interest from Areva and other companies, the Energy Department's Spurgeon said in remarks prepared for the September hearing that the agency is ready to proceed with “commercial demonstrations of these (reprocessing) technologies.” That triggered the selection of the 11 communities that had applied for GNEP study grants.

The Energy Department is looking for locations that could host a reprocessing facility capable of reprocessing 2,000 to 3,000 tons of nuclear waste a year or a new type of “advanced recycling reactor” that would consume nuclear fuel created in the reprocessing facility – or both.

In addition to Piketon, Oak Ridge and the two communities in New Mexico, DOE awarded grants to two communities in Idaho; Barnwell, S.C.; Hanford, Wash.; Morris, Ill.; Paducah, Ken.; and Savannah River, S.C. Like Piketon, most of the sites are at existing nuclear facilities.

According to Spurgeon, the site studies and other analysis are aimed at a decision sometime in 2008 by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman on whether or not to proceed with full-fledged GNEP development and seek the billions of dollars in funding it would require.

At the September hearing, Harvard’s Bunn, a leading authority on nuclear arms and a supporter of the expansion of conventional nuclear power, presented a 19-page paper that concluded that GNEP initiatives are headed in “precisely the wrong direction” and will “do more to undermine the future of nuclear energy than to promote it.”

‘A talking point, not serious analysis’
To begin with, Bunn said, reprocessing is far more expensive than “once through” use of nuclear fuel. A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimated that reprocessing the approximately 62,000 tons of spent commercial fuel now in existence would cost as much as $100 billion more than placing it in a repository like Yucca Mountain. Like Lyman, Bunn flatly disagreed that new reprocessing technology removes the risk of proliferation, calling that notion “a talking point, not a serious analysis.”

Stevens, the Energy Department spokesman, disputed that contention. “The policy will not move forward unless the technology is proliferation-resistant," he said. "If it doesn’t work, we’re going to find another way to do it. We believe, in a lab setting, it does work. It’s a matter of ramping that up.”

Bunn’s paper raised a host of other questions about funding, the Energy Department’s lack of experience in overseeing “a commercial-scale facility of this complexity” and the lack of political sustainability for a program that would require years of financial commitment from Congress. He told he believes it’s “very likely” GNEP will collapse before it gets serious funding from Congress.

Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed. “This is the height of fiscal irresponsibility,” he said.

He also argued that there are “zero” non-nuclear nations who would participate in GNEP out of fear of being seen as lackeys of the West and charged that the Bush administration is rushing GNEP along so that it can't easily be undone by future administrations and Congresses.

Not so, said Stevens. "It's a serious project. We have staffed up the office" and recruited Spurgeon, a former executive with USEC, the operator of the Piketon plant, out of retirement to lead the effort, he  said.

Potential for world changing ‘payoff’
As for GNEP's high costs, he said, "We recognize the government has a role and a responsibility to invest in basic research. If it works, the payoff will be many times greater than the investment. ... It can literally change economies around the world."

At the September hearing on GNEP, Lyman and Bunn's objections were quickly brushed aside by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., one of the biggest backers of the nuclear industry in Congress and the fuel reprocessing program's chief proponent.

Domenici, then chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, charged that Bunn “isn't living in the same age I am with reference to support for nuclear power. He's still talking about things like we need (political) support for certain things, where I already think the nation is far ahead of that.”

Domenici's staff refused's requests for an interview with the senator.

But GNEP has not been as warmly embraced by other members of Congress, and the $250 million sought by the Bush administration to begin work on the program is snarled in an appropriations battle.

Nor has the nuclear industry been a strong supporter, though that could be changing because of the program’s perceived potential to solve some of the issues surrounding nuclear waste disposal.

“I support GNEP as a responsible solution to addressing our spent fuel needs,” Domenici said at the outset of the September hearing. He has since introduced legislation that would “integrate” Yucca Mountain and GNEP to allow waste to bypass Yucca and be sent to a holding facility if “the secretary of energy determines if it can be recycled within a reasonable amount of time.”

New interest in waste implications
The waste-handling implications caught the attention of Nevada's Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, now the Senate majority leader and a staunch foe of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. At the hearing, Reid said he was “pleased that we're taking another look at the administration's GNEP plan and pleased to see that we're looking particularly at the waste recycling portion of the plan.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear power’s chief lobbying group, is showing new interest in GNEP after initially expressing concerns that the plan’s potential for overreaching could stymie near-term plans for new reactors. As recently as July, NEI President Skip Bowman called GNEP “a distraction factor” on the waste issue and an NEI policy paper in August noted that viable reprocessing technologies are “decades away.”

But in December, NEI spokesman Scott Peterson told that there had been "a bit of a shift" in industry thinking on GNEP’s implications for the waste problem. “It’s not a shift away from a repository," he said. "But what I think it does recognize is the need we’re going to have for new fuel from the 30 reactors we’re going to have." And "you will need some definite movement toward the DOE taking (spent) fuel from plant sites," to dispose of it, as it is legally obligated to do, for U.S. nuclear expansion to proceed.

Echoing the Domenici bill, the GNEP strategy released Jan. 10 notes that "once the nuclear fuel recycling center is approved to accept spent fuel, shipments of (spent) fuel could begin from utilities, which would be a significant step in providing confidence in our nation’s ability to meet its nuclear waste management responsibilities.”

Asked by if such shipments could lead to a GNEP site becoming a nuclear waste dump if plans for a “recycling reactor” don’t pan out, Spurgeon said no.

Not a ‘de facto permanent repository’
"We're not talking about interim storage … that would have it morph into a de facto permanent repository,” he said during a conference call to unveil the strategy document. And he pledged that the Department of Energy would seek licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its projects, even if not legally required to do so.

Such discussion has led some anti-nuclear activists in Piketon to charge that GNEP is a "secret plan" by DOE to turn the old Portsmouth plant into "a giant dump for commercial spent fuel,” breaking the Yucca logjam and allowing more nuclear reactors to be built.

But the Southern Ohio Neighbors Group will fight the plan regardless, said Geoffrey Sea, a member of the group and a neighbor of the Piketon site.

Sea called it “an abomination to even consider this place” for GNEP projects for a number of cultural and environmental reasons and confidently predicted that the project will never happen. “It’s very clear that the new Congress is going to kill GNEP,” he said.

But Simonton, the Piketon civic leader, said his group would not advocate anything that is unsafe. “The true community leaders understand that taking a look at something makes sense,” he said. “Finding out more information is never a harmful process as far as we’re concerned.”