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.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Four foreign policy heavy weights check in

Four foreign policy heavyweights have checked in on nonproliferation issues and say that a world free of nuclear weapons would be a good idea. Writing in the Wall Street Journal for January 4, 2007, George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn argue that US leadership is needed to "reverse reliance on nuclear weapons . . . and prevent their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands."

Briefly, these experts in nuclear weapons proposed an eight-point action plan.
  • Reduce the size of nuclear forces
  • Eliminate short-range nuclear weapons
  • Strengthen support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
  • Secure nuclear weapons materials from theft
  • Establish global controls on uranium enrichment processes
  • Halt production of weapons grade fissile materials
  • Resolve regional political conflicts that impel nations to seek nuclear weapons
The article cites President Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous "Atoms for Peace" address to the United Nations and quote President John F. Kennedy who said this about nuclear weapons. "The world is not meant to be a prision in which man awaits his execution."

93 bottles of beer on the wall

The State of Idaho published an energy plan January 2007. The 93-page document was drafted after legislators passed a two-year moratorium on coal-fired power plants in 2006. The plan does not ban nuclear power plants. In 2006 opposition to a $1.4B, 600-Mw coal-fired power plant in Jerome County near Twin Falls sparked statewide concern about siting energy plants.

Disagreement about the plan over decision making authority for energy plants appeared almost immediately. Watchdog groups such as the Snake River Alliance said they were concerned that giving counties the final say-so on new plants would disregard environmental impacts. Supporters of state level oversight said government review was necessary because of out-of-state actors who have multi-state impacts. Other states in the West, including Oregon and Montana which share borders with Idaho, have statewide energy panels to oversee siting of power plants.

The plan includes sections on renewable energy technologies including wind, biodiesel, ethanol, and conservation.

It's unlikely anyone will plan to build a coal-fired power plant in Idaho soon. Idaho does not participate in a federal program that allows states to buy or trade "credits" for mercury emissions. The Twin-Falls, ID, Times-News emphasized this point in an editorial on January 28th, and said why Idaho has taken this position.

Don Chisholm, a Burley attorney, and board member for the Department of Environment Quality, said legislators have the flexibility to allow mercury emitting plants -- but at more restrictive levels given under the Clean Air Mercury rules.

"If the Legislature were to decide they're going to allow for some generation in the state, they would tell (DEQ) to write the rules," he said. "They can opt-in on a modified set of rules, so you don't adopt federal rules in total."

To go above federal standards, however, requires more state funding of regulation -- a point that this Legislature and governor may not embrace. Their fear for excessive regulation of industry has some justification, but Idahoans may expect Idaho air and water to remain cleaner than the national standard.

Democrats in the legislature crafted a minority response to the plan that highlighted their concern about the lack of a statewide plant siting panel. Legal challenges over conflicts between local priorities and federal environmental standards are likely to emerge for any new power plants regardless of who wants one or where.

Penny for your thoughts

A penny stock outfit from Virgina called Alternative Energy Holdings is proposing to build a 1,500 Mw nuclear power plant in southeastern Idaho halfway between Boise, ID, and the Nevada state line.

Some nuclear industry experts at the Idaho National Laboratory were skeptical and noted that AEH had not contacted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license application.

The anti-nuclear Snake River Alliance spun itself up like a top with a press release to the news media. The group published a fact sheet titled "Fly by Night" nuclear and included links to various news media reports on the planned plant. The group took the proposal far more seriously than pro-nuclear industry groups perhaps because of the publicity opposing it that would be generated as a result.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group based in Washington, DC, publishes a series of reports on proposed new plants. It included the AEH proposal on the list published in January 2007.

This proposal may turn out to be a bunch of wig bubbles. Watch for future reports on this blog.

Locking the Barn

The Washington Post reports via wire service that US specialists will help the country of George combat nuclear smuggling.

TBILISI (Reuters) - The United States will provide equipment and training to Georgia under an accord on Friday to combat trafficking of radioactive material via the Caucasus state which said last week it jailed a Russian uranium smuggler.

Georgia's border patrols and the country's nuclear regulatory agency will be boosted by U.S. specialist technology and training under the agreement signed by Georgia's foreign minister and the U.S. ambassador.

In January 2007 Georgia was reported to have arrested and jailed a Russian citizen in 2006 for entering the country and trying to sell highly enriched uranium to agents posing as Islamist militants.