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Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement

As part of its push for an expansion of nuclear power in the United States, in 2006, the Bush administration launched the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) program. GNEP calls for the “reprocessing” of spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power reactors to separate out plutonium and other nuclear weapon-usable materials. These separated materials can be used to fuel reactors, but also can be used in nuclear weapons and would be dangerously vulnerable to theft or misuse. Because of these concerns, nuclear reprocessing was stopped in the United States more than 30 years ago.

Fortunately, Congress has significantly reduced the Bush administration's GNEP funding requests over the last two years, which has led the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to abandon its initial plans to build a number of reprocessing facilities throughout the country. Also, early indications are that President Barack Obama and his new secretary of energy, Steven Chu, are unenthusiastic about the GNEP program and nuclear waste reprocessing. Now is the time to urge them to do the right thing.

In 2009, the DOE will likely issue a final environmental impact statement and formal Record of Decision on GNEP. UCS will be urging the new administration to abandon GNEP and related programs and use its leadership globally to curtail nuclear waste reprocessing. Below are the key arguments against this dangerous, unnecessary, costly scheme:

Risk of Nuclear Terrorism/Proliferation
Less than 20 pounds of plutonium is needed to make a nuclear weapon. The current U.S. practice of maintaining plutonium in large, heavy, and highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies makes it nearly impossible to steal. Reprocessing would change that. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report specifically noted that advanced technologies for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel would pose a "greater risk of proliferation in comparison with direct disposal" in underground storage. The recently released draft nonproliferation impact assessment of  GNEP stated "removal of fission products and separation of actinides greatly reduces barriers to theft, misuse, or further processing, even without separation of pure plutonium. Fast reactor fuels have higher concentration of weapons usable materials."

A recent study by the DOE’s own national laboratories has found that modifications to conventional reprocessing to enhance "proliferation resistance" have been shown to be largely ineffective.

Nuclear Waste Issue Not Remedied
The GNEP plan for reprocessing is not necessary to support nuclear power expansion and, in fact, would be counterproductive by saddling nuclear power with additional waste streams that require secure disposal. Even the most avid reprocessing proponents admit that reprocessing does not eliminate the need for a geologic disposal facility (such as Yucca Mountain) because it generates high-level radioactive wastes that require long-term isolation from the environment.

Also, according to the GNEP PEIS, reprocessing will not reduce the volume of nuclear waste generated, but will significantly increase the volume of low-level waste and generate large quantities of long-lived transuranic wastes. UCS believes that spent nuclear fuel can instead be safely stored in dry casks at existing reactor sites for decades. However, a geological repository ultimately will be necessary to ensure the isolation of long-lived radioactive materials from the environment. For a repository to be viable, it must meet strict technical safety criteria and have broad political support, especially from the region where it is located.

Taxpayers and Ratepayers Will Spend Billions of Dollars
Reprocessing would be much more costly than spent fuel storage and geologic disposal. In 1996, the National Academy of Sciences reported the total cost of a reprocessing and fast reactor program could be more than $700 billion (in 2007 dollars). A more recent estimate from a government scientist found the cost associated with building and operating a plant capable of reprocessing all the spent fuel generated by the current U.S. reactor fleet would be $3 billion to $4.5 billion per year. Because the nuclear power industry has been unwilling to invest private funding to support reprocessing, these cost premiums would have to be paid for by taxpayers and ratepayers. Hundreds of millions have already been poured into the program. Several sites around the country, including Roswell and Hobbs in New Mexico and Hanford in Washington, have conducted preliminary feasibility studies for hosting reprocessing plants and other GNEP facilities. The risks of radioactive contamination at reprocessing facilities could cost billions of dollars more to support decommissioning and site cleanup activities.

GNEP Lacks Budgetary Support
The fiscal year 2009 omnibus spending plan (H.R. 1105) rejects the concept of a commercial GNEP while retaining $145 million for GNEP-related activities, just over one-third of the amount proposed by the Bush administration. This signals a loss of confidence in the program from Congressional budget leaders. House Appropriators, led by Chairman Pete Visclosky (D-IN), have criticized the program’s spent fuel management plans, costs, commercialization schedules, and proliferation challenges. In fact Visclosky’s bipartisan House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee report last year repeatedly took aim at GNEP, describing it as a “rushed, poorly defined, expansive and expensive,” program. Given the poor support for GNEP in Congress, it would be a waste of resources for the DOE to continue drafting guidelines for a dirty, dangerous, and expensive reprocessing program.

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