Published online 2 July 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.619

News: Briefing

US nuclear recycling faces the axe

Department of Energy cancels reprocessing project.

Nuclear reprocessing plantPlans for a US nuclear fuel recycling facility have been dropped.Punchstock

Earlier this week, the administration of President Barack Obama quietly cancelled plans for a large-scale facility to recycle nuclear fuel. The move may prove a fatal blow to the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) set up by previous president George W. Bush. Nature News looks at the decision, what it means for US nuclear policy, and where a long-hoped-for nuclear renaissance may be headed.

What was GNEP all about?

The US Department of Energy (DoE) set up GNEP in early 2006 to tackle the problems of nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste. As nuclear power spreads, some nations will want the ability to produce their own uranium fuel through enrichment — a process that can also be used to create material for nuclear weapons. The Bush administration hoped to limit proliferation of enrichment technologies by creating a guaranteed fuel supply for non-nuclear weapons states. Through GNEP, countries with enrichment plants, including France, Russia, and the United States, will guarantee a supply of fuel to countries that agree not to develop their own enrichment capabilities.

Once the fuel is used, the supplying nations will take it back and 'reprocess' it for use in their own commercial reactors. Plutonium and unused uranium isotopes can be chemically extracted and put into new fuel pellets that in turn can be used in specially designed reactors. France, Japan, the United Kingdom and Russia already reprocess fuel for commercial use, although the United States hasn't done so since the 1970s.

By reprocessing, these states will maximize the use of the fuel they've created, as well as dramatically reducing the quantity of nuclear waste produced by the fuel cycle.

Sounds like a good deal. Why are environmental campaigners against it?

Reprocessing extracts plutonium isotopes that can be used either in nuclear fuel or as the core of a weapon. Proponents of reprocessing say that the pure plutonium can be blended with other radioactive elements that make it too radioactive to handle easily, but campaigners say that it could still be used be a determined group or organization to make a bomb.

There are also environmental implications. Reprocessing uses acid to dissolve old fuels, creating, in the process, a radioactive sludge that is difficult to immobilize and put into storage. Environmentalists say that it is far more costly and difficult to store than standard spent nuclear fuel.

Lastly comes the price tag. The DoE has stated that a new reprocessing facility in the United States could cost in excess of US$15 billion — no small sum in the current financial climate. Indeed, a similar facility in Rokkasho, Japan is thought to have cost around $20 billion, says Tom Clements, a nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth, a non-profit group that opposes nuclear power.

What exactly has the Obama administration done with regards to GNEP?

The Bush administration had started to draft a "programmatic environmental impact statement" for GNEP, a process that would effectively open the door for the possible future construction of reprocessing plants in the United States. On 29 June, the Obama administration announced that it was cancelling that document. The cancellation means that "the effort to start a commercial reprocessing plant in the United States has totally fizzled out", according to Clements.

Does this mean that reprocessing is again dead in the United States?

Not entirely. The US Congress allocated $145 million for "proliferation resistant fuel cycles and waste management strategies", a set of research and development programmes that includes some reprocessing research, according to Clements.

Clements says that such research won't do much to bring down the cost of reprocessing — or make it any more appealing from an environmental or proliferation standpoint.

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But Burton Richter, a physicist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Palo Alto, California, disagrees. He thinks that finding effective ways to reprocess nuclear fuel can ultimately help the proliferation cause by burning up weapons-grade material. "If you do it right, you can stop the build up of plutonium," he says.

Despite their differences in opinion on reprocessing, both Clements and Richter think it will be a long time before the United States builds a new commercial facility.

What happens next?

The debate goes on. Although the domestic aspect of the GNEP programme seems dead, the Obama administration may still try to use the programme to address international fuel cycle and proliferation issues.

The administration may also address some of these issues through a panel that will be named later this year to look at the long-term US strategy for nuclear-waste disposal.

But even if GNEP doesn't go forward, the idea of providing a reliable fuel supply to nations without enrichment capabilities is unlikely to die. The International Atomic Energy Agency is considering several proposals for a multinational fuel bank that would perform a similar role to GNEP. 

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