Hearings Demonstrate Little Enthusiasm for Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing

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Publication date: 
8 August 2005

"This is not the best picture that we are having painted for us, and does cause a great amount of consternation."- Rep. Al Green (D-TX)

None of the witnesses at two different hearings held by the House Science Subcommittee on Energy had much enthusiasm about the federal government implementing a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing system in the near future. Concerns about the risks of nuclear proliferation and the high cost of reprocessing were cited repeatedly as reasons for the federal government to do further research before making any decision.

Nuclear fuel reprocessing has come to the forefront because of the FY 2006 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill that was passed by the House in May. The report accompanying this bill included the following language: "[T]he Committee directs the Department to prepare an integrated spent fuel recycling plan for implementation in fiscal year 2007, including selection of an advanced reprocessing technology and a competitive process to select one or more sites to develop integrated spent fuel recycling facilities (i.e., reprocessing, preparation of mixed oxide fuel, vitrification of high level waste products, and temporary process storage)" (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/082.html.) The Senate version of this bill had more standard language on advanced fuel cycle research (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/102.html.)

Eight expert witnesses testified at the two hearings on the status of reprocessing technologies and likely economic, energy efficiency, waste management, and weapons proliferation impacts. Chairing both hearings was Judy Biggert (R-IL) who in opening remarks on June 16 said that the current open fuel cycle was "just plain wasteful" and did not make sense. She termed reprocessing "the first step to better managing our waste." Biggert described an April trip with House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-OH) to inspect a reprocessing facility in France. Ranking Member Michael Honda (D-CA) gave guarded support for reprocessing, citing concerns about nuclear proliferation.

Somewhat unexpectedly, Hobson sat in for the opening of this first hearing. "What we are trying to do is get the dialogue going and get some real action," he said. Hobson called for a reexamination of the U.S. decision against reprocessing since it was being done elsewhere in the world. Hobson stated his support for the opening of the Yucca Mountain site, and said that without reprocessing the repository would be filled more quickly. He praised Biggert for her interest in this issue. Later in the hearing, Hobson predicted that there will be a sizeable clash with the Senate over reprocessing as the final FY 2006 funding bill is written.

The first witness was Robert Shane Johnson, the Acting Director of DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology. He said the Bush Administration was examining the House Appropriations Committee Report language on reprocessing, and gave a standard "we look forward to working closely with the Congress on what is a key issue" statement.

Matthew Bunn of Harvard University was unambiguous in his testimony, saying that a near term decision on reprocessing "would be a serious mistake." There is no reason to rush, he said, since dry cask storage works. Furthermore, he warned, mandated reprocessing would hinder, not encourage, the utilization of nuclear energy. Bunn called for a stronger research program.

Roger Hagengruber of the University of New Mexico and the chair of the Nuclear Energy Study Group of the American Physical Society, a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics, also testified. The study group released a 25-page report in May entitled "Nuclear Power and Proliferation Resistance: Securing Benefits, Limiting Risks." The report cited the expected 50% growth in global electricity demand by 2025 and concluded that "Nuclear power is the primary carbon-free energy source for meeting this extensive global energy expansion." The study group outlined the risk that reprocessing poses for the theft or covert use of "essential material for a nuclear explosive." One of the reports' four general recommendations was to "Align federal programs to reflect the fact that there is no urgent need to initiate reprocessing or to develop additional spent fuel repositories in the U.S." Hagengruber also told the subcommittee that APS "quite strongly" supports the expansion of nuclear energy, but warned that an immediate move to reprocessing would threaten the growth of nuclear energy. The report can be accessed at http://www.aps.org/public_affairs/proliferation-resistance/index.cfm

Also testifying at this hearing was Phillip Finck of Argonne National Laboratory who was more optimistic about the prospects for reprocessing. His written testimony stated, "Moving forward in 2007 with an engineering-scale demonstration of an integrated system of proliferation-resistant, advanced separations and transmutation technologies would be an excellent first step in demonstrating all of the necessary technologies for a sustainable future for nuclear energy." The written testimony of the witnesses can be found at: http://www.house.gov/science/hearings/energy05/june15/index.htm

As committee members questioned the witnesses it was clear that they supported an expansion of nuclear energy in the United States. There was a general consensus that current spent fuel rod storage methods are working, and much more research was needed before reprocessing should commence. An early decision to reprocess spent fuel would be both expensive and controversial, and would work against building new nuclear energy plants. It was also felt that there were sufficient reserves of uranium ore for future expansion of nuclear generating plants. There was some sentiment expressed for moving ahead with regional above ground, retrievable storage facilities. Hagengruber described how reprocessing could increase the opportunity for illicit nuclear weapons. As he stated, "from a physicist's point of view, recycling makes sense. . . . On the other hand, proliferation has been a persistent problem, an emotional problem; it's one that gets into the deepest sense of fear that people have, and it affects the political environment, the cycles of support and non support for nuclear energy." This is not a physics problem, Hagengruber said, but a political problem.

The July 12 hearing focused on the economic aspects of nuclear fuel processing. Biggert also chaired this hearing, and in her prepared opening remarks stated "There are many reasons why the United States should embrace an advanced fuel cycle that uses reprocessing, recycling, and transmutation . . . as a way to deal with our nuclear waste problem." While acknowledging that reprocessing would be more expensive than current techniques, she said, "But let's face it, the federal government does a lot that isn't economical – often because doing so is in the best interest of the nation for other reasons." Ranking Member Honda was again guarded in his remarks, saying that it would be unwise to proceed to a reprocessing decision without knowing the costs.

The four witnesses at this hearing were very cautious about the prospects for reprocessing (see http://www.house.gov/science/hearings/energy05/july%2012/index.htm.) Richard K. Lester of MIT testified that reprocessing would work against the expansion of nuclear energy because of the higher cost that it would impose. It would be "extremely unlikely" that within the next few decades reprocessing and mining/enriching costs would be roughly equal. Lester pointed to a MIT study that concluded reprocessing would not be attractive for at least fifty years. Donald W. Jones of RCF Economic and Financial Consulting, Inc. estimated that after the construction of the first few power plants, nuclear energy could be competitive with fossil fuels, particularly if carbon sequestration was required at fossil fuel plants. Steve Fetter of the University of Maryland concluded that it was extremely unlikely that the cost of uranium would be competitive with reprocessing, and commercial operators of utility plants would be unlikely to embrace it. Marvin Fertel of the Nuclear Energy Institute called for an additional five to ten years of R&D, after which another decade would be required to establish a reprocessing facility. Fertel predicted that it would require "a couple of decades to honestly deploy the facilities that you want, assuming that they are economic."

In the near-term, House and Senate appropriators are going to be making a decision when they return from the congressional recess in September regarding what action the Department of Energy should take concerning reprocessing by FY 2007 . As Biggert said at the second hearing, "This is something that is upon us."