This afternoon, a committee of the National Research Council, a research arm of the National Academy of Science, issued a report that is extremely critical of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, an administration plan to restart separating plutonium from used commercial nuclear reactor fuel, something the United States has not done for three decades. I have argued that the goals of GNEP, while scientifically possible and perhaps someday economically justifiable, are decades premature. I am relieved to discover that the committee report comes to essentially the same conclusion.
What has been most remarkable about the GNEP program is not simply the ambitious technical goals it sets, rather it is the extraordinary urgency with which the program is promoted. Currently, the GNEP program is planning on moving basically from lab-bench scale experiments to essentially commercial scale operation without intermediate pilot programs and engineering development. Sort of the missile defense approach to plutonium reprocessing. But the press office summary of the report states that “…the technologies required for achieving GNEP’s goals are too early in development to justify DOE’s accelerated schedule for construction of commercial facilities that would use these technologies…” Except for the political calendar—DOE may be trying to create facts on the ground, quite literally by pouring concrete, before the end of the Bush administration—I cannot figure out what motivates the big rush.
DOE often has a particular reluctance to do serious cost analysis before setting out on even multibillion dollar projects. (DOE seems to take a more empirical approach to cost studies: keep sending them money until they are finished with the project and when they are done they will tell you how much it cost.) The summary says “DOE claims that the program will save time and money if pursued on the commercial scale, but the committee believes that the opposite will likely be true and found no economic justification.”
Perhaps the primary appeal to Congress of GNEP is that it holds out some hope of avoiding a second Yucca Mountain. Whatever one thinks of Yucca, for or against, everyone agrees that it has been a political nightmare not willingly repeated. The summary says “And although a stated goal of the program is to reduce the overall amount of radioactive waste, which would in turn decrease the need for a second geological repository in addition to Yucca Mountain, it was not clear to the committee that such a need currently exists.”
In short, the summary says, “While all 17 members of the committee concluded that the GNEP R&D program, as currently planned, should not be pursued, 15 of the members said that the less-aggressive reprocessing research program that preceded the current one should be. However, if DOE returns to the earlier program, called the Advance Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI), it should not commit to a major demonstration or deployment of reprocessing unless there is a clear economic, national security, or environmental reason to do so.”
And this is not a group of anti-nuclear tree-huggers. The report goes on to review the DOE’s nuclear reactor research program and, while it notes pluses and minuses in various programs, the committee strongly and clearly supports a robust research and development effort in nuclear power. Even a group generally sympathetic to nuclear power isn’t sold on GNEP.
Perhaps the basic problem is, as the committee observes, that “Moreover, there has been insufficient peer review of the program.” This report is an important step in correcting that shortcoming.