NEW YORK - The Bush administration is pushing for plans to reuse spent nuclear fuel in power reactors across the United States, but key senators and nuclear analysts have raised economic and security concerns about reusing the weapons-grade fuel.
"We have serious concerns about the implications of current plans for commercial spent fuel reprocessing," a group of seven Democratic and one Republican senators told Byron Dorgan (D-ND), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development Appropriations, in a letter last week.
The letter urged Dorgan and Ranking Member Pete Domenici (R-NM) to cut funding for spent fuel reprocessing in an energy appropriations bill that is expected to be considered along with many other spending plans next month.
The reprocessing is being promoted as part of the administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a plan to form an international partnership to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in a way that renders the plutonium in it usable for nuclear energy but not for nuclear weapons.
The energy and water development appropriations bill currently before the Senate would provide $243 million for the initiative, whereas the House version would commit $120 million.
Those who signed the letter include Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), John Sununu (R-NH), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Bernard Sanders (D-VT), John Kerry (D-MA), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), and Edward Kennedy (D-MA).
The eight senators said reprocessing is "not a solution" to the problem of nuclear waste and held that it could weaken U.S. efforts to halt global nuclear proliferation. In addition, they argued that the Energy Department's plans could cost taxpayers at least $200 billion.
Arms control activists have welcomed the senators' call for funding cuts and said their letter reflects a growing skepticism in Congress about the administration's reprocessing initiative.
"There are a variety of concerns about the program ranging from cost, to nuclear proliferation risks, to past failures in this area," said Leonor Tomero, director for nuclear nonproliferation at the Washington, DC-based Center for Arms Control and nonproliferation.
In her view, the Energy Department's request for hundreds of millions of dollars is not reasonable because its initiative and the GNEP "will not provide a viable solution" to the nuclear waste problem.
The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources recently held a hearing on GNEP where many of its members expressed their concerns and raised serious questions about the Energy Department's plans.
In addition to the senators' objections, the administration's current proposal has also been criticized by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a pro bono committee of experts that advises the federal government on scientific issues. In its annual report this year, the NAS described the Energy Department's plan as an "unwise" effort that lacked "economic justification."
Although the administration has failed to provide an official cost analysis of the entire program, critics say it is clear that reprocessing is drastically more expensive than the current practice of "once through" fuel cycle systems.
In 1996, for example, the NAS estimated reprocessing and transmutation could easily cost $100 billion to deal only with the current spent fuel, and said technical challenges likely will result in GNEP costing -- rather than saving -- money.
And the nuclear power industry has expressed no interest in cost sharing, almost ensuring that the entire burden would fall on taxpayers.
At the recent hearing NAS scientists said there was no need for GNEP and held that the administration's accelerated timetable and efforts to initiate commercial-scale facilities "will create significant technical and financial risks."
Noting that previous efforts to reprocess and reuse spent fuel had failed, the senators recalled in their letter how, in 1983, Congress canceled the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, initially estimated to cost $400 million, when GAO cost estimates reached $8.8 billion.
In 1972, the West Valley, New York reprocessing facility was shut down as well, after only reprocessing in its six years of operation the equivalent of four months of spent fuel produced by the current fleet of U.S . reactors, whose $5.3 billion cleanup effort is still ongoing.
"The GNEP has morphed into a large-scale construction project well beyond research and development, they said, even though the technologies that GNEP proposes are not available.
Since first unveiling GNEP in February 2006, the administration has changed its plans "at least four times," the senators stated in the letter, explaining that much of the essential technology "will not be viable for 40-50 years."
"The GNEP hinges on the development and deployment of dozens of fast-neutron reactors," the senators said, but added that not one has been commercialized anywhere, "despite 50 years of U.S. and international research."
According to the recently released Keystone Center report, which is the product of a federal, industry, academic, and nonprofit collaboration, "reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel does not eliminate the need for a geologic repository, because there is residual high level waste from the reprocessing stream that needs to be sequestered in a geologic repository."
The report concluded that reprocessing would only divert attention away from a viable long-term solution to nuclear waste, and the GNEP program may further complicate the waste disposal problem as it proposes to reprocess spent fuel from not only new domestic reactors, but also from foreign reactors.
The senators warned that the administration's proposed technologies would also result in material that could be easily processed to make a nuclear weapon.
In their letter, the senators noted that commercial reprocessing in Britain, France, Japan, and Russia has resulted in the accumulation of about 250 metric tons of separated plutonium that can be used to make nuclear weapons, exacerbating the risk of terrorists gaining access to this material.
"At a time when the United States is seeking to limit the spread of reprocessing technology and expertise to other countries," they said, "resuming reprocessing would reverse decades of U.S. leadership that contributed to countries such as Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan abandoning their reprocessing ambitions."
The Bush administration is trying to promote nuclear power as a clean energy source that would reduce dependence on fossil fuels, whose use is a major contributor to dangerous climate changes.
But many environmentalists and scientists, who see nuclear reactors as dangerous, say nuclear power undermines real solutions to climate change by diverting resources away from the massive development of renewable energy sources.
"Nuclear reactors are not safe because, in addition to natural disasters, they are also vulnerable to unintentional human error," says Norman Dean of Friends of the Earth (FoE), a network of hundreds of environmental groups around the world.
To Dean, there are many other ways to fight global warming, such as energy conservation and wind and solar power, which are cleaner and safer than nuclear power.
Similar views have also expressed by a number of leading European politicians on the use of nuclear energy for non-military purposes.
Last year in April, former environment ministers from European countries, including Russia, sent a letter to then-UN chief Kofi Annan urging him to reform the mandate of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and stop promoting the use of nuclear energy.
"Nuclear power is no longer necessary," they said in the letter. "We have now numerous renewable technologies available to guarantee the right to safe, clean, and cheap energy."
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