Movement on Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing

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Publication date: 
26 January 2005

One of the more significant areas of initial disagreement in the FY 2006 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill was the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. House appropriators advanced a plan for the Department of Energy to designate one or more above-ground interim storage sites for domestic spent fuel, and move ahead on the selection of a reprocessing technology, an approach that Senate appropriators did not take. The final legislation written by the appropriators provided $50 million to "develop a spent nuclear fuel recycling plan" (see

Today's edition of "The Washington Post" describes a Bush Administration proposal to be sent to Congress in coming weeks to increase nuclear power generation in the United States and abroad, and to reprocess nuclear fuel from other nations. The "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership" would provide funding for the development of technologies to substantially reduce or eliminate the possible diversion of nuclear materials. The Post quotes Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, that he will introduce a bill to implement the Administration's plan, hold a hearing on it, and move the legislation to the Senate floor this spring.

Domenici discussed his position on nuclear power and fuel recycling at the November meeting of the U.S.-Japan Workshop on Nuclear Energy. Selections from his address follow:

"With the recent passage of the Energy Policy Act, utilities are deciding that the time is right to build nuclear power plants in America. In fact, as of last week, eight utilities across the United States have announced plans to take the first step in building 13 new nuclear power plants that, combined, will produce at least 15 gigawatts of new power in the next 15 years. These eight utilities are taking these first steps by starting the licensing process for a new plant.

"If all 13 plants are built, the construction and operation of the plants would create approximately 18,000 construction jobs and 6,000 high-paying, high-tech jobs.

"I believe Congress has shown vision and leadership in making our nuclear renaissance a reality. To those who say the government has not done enough to address climate change, I would counter that the extraordinary congressional commitment to new nuclear power has been driven in large part by a deep and abiding concern for our environment and our climate.

"However, a challenge remains. Our work to foster new nuclear power has added new urgency to an old question: what should the U.S. fuel cycle be to support long-term, sustainable nuclear power?

"And while we tackle that challenge, what do we do with our spent nuclear fuel?

"For years, Yucca Mountain was the answer. But Yucca Mountain evolved from the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. In 1982 the industry was in ‘status quo.' The nuclear plants that existed at the time would run to their projected lifetimes and be decommissioned. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission became the nursemaid that would watch over the industry until the last plant turned off.

"Yucca Mountain was created to be the final resting place of the spent nuclear fuel from these plants -- and frankly, the resting place of nuclear energy in the United States. The intent was to move fuel to the mountain, fill the mountain and close it. At that point, we would simply haggle over what kind of sign to hang over the locked front door.

"But it's no longer 1982. While some plants have shut down, the vast majority of nuclear power plants in this country still operate, providing clean and reliable electricity that's cheaper than all other sources except hydropower. Operating licenses and plant lifetimes are being extended to extract the most from these investments. And now, 13 new power plants are being discussed.

"In this new environment, the current U.S. policy regarding Yucca Mountain should be that it will not do enough by itself. I believe we must look anew on our policy on spent nuclear fuel and I think that re-evaluation is under way.

"As a fan and believer in demonstrated technology solutions, I urge continued research and development of reprocessing technologies that deal with the limitations of existing technology. We must conduct engineering scale pilot demonstrations to prove the technology can be scaled-up and is economically viable before choosing a technology that will enable us to squeeze every last bit of energy from those fuel elements, leaving in its wake by-products that can be safely and effectively managed.

"I believe we must bring the scientific passion and creativity to the fuel cycle that we have brought to creating smaller, safer and more powerful nuclear reactors. What we have done globally with advanced nuclear reactors in the last 20 years amazes me. I believe what we can do with the fuel cycle in the next 20 years can amaze the world.

"But that's me. I have always been a fan of what I call Big Science -- science that improves modern life. I am the man you expect to advocate a renewed commitment to fuel technologies.

"But the interest in exploring solutions beyond Yucca Mountain is coming from other quarters now. Let me give you a few examples.

"We appropriated $50 million for spent fuel recycling in the current energy and water appropriations bill. The recommendation for this funding came first from the House, not my subcommittee.

"I note with interest a series of discussions within the Administration on long term solutions to reprocessing.

"Even the courts and regulatory agencies are weighing in. The current legal and regulatory debate or disposal standards has raised the question about whether it drives to fuel treatment.

"These issues are complex. I believe technology provides more than one answer -- what we are beginning to see is a dance between what is technically possible and what is socially necessary and acceptable. It will be a long discussion, but we have decades."

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