Newly Released Documents Reveal Energy Department Wasting Hundreds of Millions on Flawed Nuclear Technology

Failed Program Should Raise Questions About New Reactor Concepts

Published Aug 16, 2017

WASHINGTON (August 16, 2017)—Government documents recently obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal that the Department of Energy (DOE) has spent more than $210 million on an unproven technology that has failed to meet the unrealistic projections the agency used to convince Congress to back the project.

UCS physicist Edwin Lyman provides the details in a recent blog post, which includes hyperlinks to a selection of the FOIA documents.

The FOIA documents plainly show that the results of pyroprocessing technology—which dissolves metal-based spent reactor fuel in a molten salt bath instead of the water-based acid solution used in conventional reprocessing—have been a major disappointment.

In 2000, the DOE projected that by 2007 it would able to pyroprocess 26 metric tons of spent fuel from an experimental fast breeder reactor at Idaho National Laboratory that shut down in 1994. As of last fall, however, only about 15 percent of the spent fuel had been processed, at an average cost of about $50,000 per kilogram. At that rate, it will take until the end of the century to complete pyroprocessing of the entire inventory, at an additional cost of more than $1 billion.

Besides squandering taxpayer dollars, the program has created an even bigger waste problem by generating three distinct types of nuclear waste, Lyman points out. “Pyroprocessing has taken one potentially difficult form of nuclear waste and converted it into multiple challenging forms of nuclear waste,” he writes. “DOE has spent hundreds of millions of dollars only to magnify, rather than simplify, the waste problem.”

Finally, one of the program’s goals is to demonstrate the viability of pyroprocessing to increase confidence in new reactor technologies that rely on it. In particular, the Integral Fast Reactor concept—a fast reactor with a pyroprocessing plant attached to it—has attracted some devoted advocates and media attention, most notably the 2013 documentary Pandora’s Promise. China, Japan, Russia and South Korea are all considering pyroprocessing and GE-Hitachi is exploring ways to commercialize it.

This growing interest has been driven largely by idealized studies, however, not by actual experience. The DOE program, which demonstrates pyroprocessing’s numerous shortcomings, should dispel some of the myths about the technology.

So what should the government do about this DOE boondoggle? “Pull the plug on it,” Lyman says, “and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by safely managing the remaining spent fuel without reprocessing.”