Even if there isn't much left of it
The Department of Energy is soldiering on with the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) even though Congress has repeatedly shredded its budget. The nuclear industry has ignored it except when it handed out money. Critics have attacked it as a giant nuclear boondoggle and even pro-nuclear analysts have worried that the government moved too quickly with huge and unrealized plans to build massive spent fuel reprocessing plants and fast reactors.
What started out as a supernova of a program has been reduced to a white dwarf. It began as a plan to build nuclear recycling centers, fast reactors, and advanced fuel R&D facilities at several of 13 potential sites in 11 states. In April 2007 EnergySolutions estimated that a combined site in Idaho with fuel reprocessing and a fast reactor would cost $20 billion.
Now, what's left is a programmatic environmental impact statement with no site-specific analyses and some obvious policy choices that the incoming Obama administration isn't likely to put on its short list for action in 2009.
White dwarf shines in Idaho Falls
On Nov 20 the GNEP traveling road show came to Idaho Falls for another in a series of hearings on the draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS). A document like this is a difficult exercise for just about everyone involved because it doesn't drive site-specific decisions and nearly everything in it is subject to further analysis in the future.
That didn't stop about 200 people from showing up at the brand spanking new Hilton Garden Hotel on Lindsay Blvd producing a standing room only crowd for the first hour. Last March 700 people showed up to support GNEP when it was believed that one or more of the program's planned nuclear plants might actually be built in Idaho.
Department of Energy officials still rate Idaho Falls as the most nuclear friendly city in the nation. It is a reputation earned by a combination of the stewardship of the nearby nuclear R&D lab and more than decade of steady progress with the nuclear waste cleanup program. The combined payroll of these facilities and the Naval Reactors program has been a mainstay of the economic engine for the 10 county region in eastern Idaho since the early 1950s.
For its part the government, and the Idaho congressional delegation, have supported funding for these projects over the long-term even if various advocates haven't gotten everything on their wish list. Two secretaries of energy have visited the site over the past decade, but funding is still acquired one line item at a time. The signature facility of the current contract, a $2 billion 'Next Generation Nuclear Plant' (NGNP), likely a HTGR, is 8-10 years away in terms of start-up of construction.
Hearing moves faster than expected
The hearing was an exercise in cordial banter and enthusiastic support for the program's objectives even if no practical decisions are likely to flow from it. However, there were a few critics who's comments were received respectfully by the audience. Lane Allgood, director of the pro-nuclear Partnership for Science & Technology (PST), continued his practice of reaching out to engage critics of nuclear energy programs in public dialog.
The DOE hearing official started the meeting with a fairly crisp briefing on the program. Like many in the audience, my first impression of a 21-slide handout with lots of long sentences was that we'd spend all night on it and never get to the hearing. Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case. Here are a few highlights.
GNEP reconsidered and how
No site will be selected as a result of the PEIS. Only federal sites like Idaho or Savannah River will be consider for now, but DOE is keeping its long-term options open for non-federal sites. All 13 site-specific analyses prepared in 2007 were removed from consideration, but DOE added four fuel cycle alternatives including;
- Thermal reactor recycle
- Fast reactor
- Thorium reactor
- Heavy water or high temperature gas cooled reactor
Interim storage of spent nuclear fuel was not analyzed, the DOE official said, because the agency has no legislative authority in that area. He added that none of the alternatives change the need for opening Yucca Mountain. The reason, he said, is that DOE expects the national inventory of spent nuclear fuel to reach 70,000 tons by 2010.
DOE is on record as supporting the "closed cycle" for nuclear fuel which involves advanced recycling and fast reactors. DOE said its decision would impact the nuclear industry, but didn't say whether the government or private industry would build and operate the new facilities. Given the huge costs and risks of these first-of-a-kind projects, it is likely the government would have to fund them for perhaps as long as several decades or perhaps forever depending on early results. Even if the government funded and built five 1,000 ton/year reprocessing plants in the next two decades, it couldn't keep up with the growing inventory of spent nuclear fuel for the rest of this century or the next.
Pro-nuclear testimony at the hearing came mostly from managers and scientists at the Idaho National Laboratory. John Grossenbacher, the lab's director, said that planning for the future of nuclear energy needs to take into account a time line of decades and even centuries. He also commented that nuclear energy is safe and that more people died this year in the sugar industry than have died in the entire history of the U.S. nuclear industry. He may have been referring to a February 2008 explosion at a Georgia sugar plant in which 11 people died and 14 others were injured.
Steve Piet, a Ph.D. nuclear scientist, said "recycle must happen" because it is pointless to wait for natural attenuation to work itself out over 250,000 years. Brent Dixon, a nuclear engineer, said the current U.S. approach to managing spent nuclear fuel is like eating a banana except the U.S. eats the peel and throws away the fruit.Critics testify on hazards
He said the tribe is concerned about transportation of spent nuclear fuel across the reservation, which is adjacent to the Idaho National Laboratory. Also, he made the claim the INL is actually ancient tribal land and that the Indian nation wants it back.
IEER Director interviewed
In an interview with this blog, Arjun Makhijani, a Ph.D. scientist who is the long standing director of IEER, an environmental think tank in the Washington, DC, area,, said the government's preference for fast reactors ignores the fact that globally various projects to build them, including one in France and another in Japan, have not worked.
Arjun Makhijani (right) told the hearing the Draft PEIS is "seriously deficient" and that the closed cycle alternative will generate more waste, especially greater than class "C" waste, than the "no action alternative." He cited a table on Pg. S-35 of the Summary of the PEIS as the basis for his statement.
Instead, he said none of the GNEP alternatives make sense. Instead, he said the U.S. should set a goal of phasing out all nuclear power plants in 30-40 years. He's written a book which he says includes an analysis that shows it is possible using a combination of solar, wind, and energy efficiency to achieve this goal. However, he cautioned the U.S. should not move too fast despite the incoming Obama administration's preference for renewable energy supply. He warned that the reliability of the nation's electrical transmission and distribution grid is a key priority.
Asked what he thought of Al Gore's ten-year plan for renewable energy, Makhijani said that the former Vice-President had not responded to inquiries from IEER about it. However, Makhijani praised Dan Reicher, a key energy transition official in the Obama organization, and said he'd make a good Secretary of Energy.
Makijani predicted that Congress would not support expansion of the current ceiling on federal loan guarantees ($18 billion) compared to the applications for $122 billion in insurance coverage for 100% of the loans and 80% of the cost of new nuclear plants. Under this scenario, he said only a few new nuclear plants would ever be built. He pointed a statements by leading nuclear utility executives which said no new plants would be built without the loan guarantees.
Hearing record remains open
DOE officials stressed that the comment period on the draft PEIS remains open until December 16th. The pro-and-anti-nuclear sentiments for GNEP seem to be bouncing around inside the same glass jar. There is lots of transparency, but the fate of the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. is unlikely to be substantially influenced by the outcome of any decision related to GNEP.
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