Saturday, February 3, 2007

GNEP Site Grants Awarded, Two in Idaho

The Department of Energy awarded over $10M in grants for site evaluation studies for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Of the 11 sites, six are currently owned and operated by DOE. Two of the sites are in Idaho.

Atomic City, ID
Teaming Consortia: EnergySolutions Grant Award: $915,448

Idaho National Laboratory
Teaming Consortia: Regional Development Alliance Grant Award: $648,745

The funds will be used to evaluate potential sites for integrated spent fuel recycling facilities. Recipients will have 90-days to complete these studies and submit a Site Characterization Report to DOE on May 30, 2007.

Victor Reis, an expert in nuclear weapons, who is one of the people who was involved in the conceptual development of the program, spoke with a Washington, DC, think tank in January 2007 to explain the program's global objectives.

Reis said the goals of the GNEP program are to increase nuclear power generation, to decrease the amount of radioactive waste and to reduce the risk of proliferation posed by expanding the number of nuclear generators. The program, if implemented, would create a nuclear fuel leasing facility managed by those states that already possess a full nuclear fuel cycle capability. Processing states would lease fuel to 'reactor' states, returning spent fuel to the processing states for re-processing. Such a program was first proposed by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, in the Atoms For Peace program. The Soviet Union used a similar system to manage nuclear fuel within the Soviet Bloc.

While the grant recipients are now busy working on their site studies, not everyone is thrilled with GNEP. Several public science organizations have raised questions about the program. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) published a five part online critique of the program. In an article published in Nuclear Engineering International in August 2006, FAS analyst Ivan Oelrich writes that the plan lacks an economic justification.

As with most new programs, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was big on vision and short on specifics. Now more information is coming out, but the details and the vision do not always add up.

Oelrich objects to GNEP being positioned as a swap for Yucca Mountain. He says it is a case of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

The political calculus is somewhat analogous to the economic analysis. To an extent, reprocessing is an attempt to escape the political pain of finding a site for a second geologic repository. But this simply trades the well-know political problems of Yucca Mountain for the thus far hypothetical, but most likely equally intense, local political resistance that can be expected from trying to site more than a dozen fast neutron reactors, a couple of reprocessing centers, and the transportation of spent fuel.

Thomas Cochran at the Natural Resources Defense Council released an analysis of the plan soon after it was announced in February 2006. He wrote a harsh critique of its policy objectives. It is sufficient to say he doesn't buy Reis' ideas for the program and would like to see it go away. His grounds for this analysis are that it is not affordable, and called it impractical and ahead of its time.

The Bush administration and Congress have their work cut out for them with GNEP. According to the trade journal Nuclear Fuel for 1/15/07, Bush requested $250M for the program in FY2007, but a House omnibus funding bill that passed this week (Feb 2) provides less than half that amount. In the same action the House delayed construction of the MOX fuel plant at Savannah River.

Dennis Spurgeon, the DOE official in charge of GNEP, told a conference call on January 10th the funding uncertainties for GNEP make it harder to make progress. He said that if funding uncertainties continue the next steps in the program might not be requests for proposals for facilities, but for business plans.

A panel at the National Academy of Sciences raised questions about industry participation in the program. Also, panel members expressed concern about DOE's plans for GNEP to skip development of engineering-scale facilities and going directly to commercial-scale plants. This isn't the first time the NAS has questioned the logic of GNEP. In August 2006 Richard Lester, a Professor of Nuclear Science at MIT, published an analysis of the proposed program in a NAS journal. In a section titled, "Why it won't work," Lester said the timing of the program is off base in relation to near-term nuclear plant investments.

Even if the government can find the funds, GNEP is unlikely to succeed in meeting its goals. First, it will have little or no impact on the group of “first mover” nuclear power plants now in the planning stage. The full actinide recycle scheme envisaged by GNEP could not be deployed for decades— too far into the future to mitigate the uncertainty over spent fuel confronting prospective investors during the next few years, when decisions on whether to proceed with these projects will be made.

While critics of the program have come at it from several angles, for its part DOE released a strategic plan for the program to address some of the issues that have been raised by Congress and the science community. The plan is positioned to serve as a confidence building measure.

This Plan identifies the technology, economic and environmental information necessary to present a convincing case to the Secretary of Energy for his decision on a path forward regarding the design and construction of recycling facilities in support of GNEP.

What almost everyone agrees on is that the GNEP siting studies DOE has funded are just of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to developing a program of this size, duration, and scope. Meanwhile the spent fuel keeps piling up at US reactors.

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