A key component of the Bush Administration Advanced Energy Initiative, announced during the 2006 State of the Union Address, is the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), intended to enable the expansion worldwide of nuclear energy. The current GNEP proposal before Congress shares key elements with the recommendations of a May 2005 report issued by the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA).
Nuclear energy has long been viewed with suspicion by the general public because of various health and safety concerns, but over the last decade, there has been a noticeable shift in public perception, according to Roger Hagengruber (University of New Mexico), who chaired the POPA subcommittee responsible for drafting the APS report. Nuclear energy is becoming an attractive alternative to petroleum-based energy sources, particularly in light of mounting concern about global warming and US dependence on foreign sources of oil. Other countries are also reconsidering the potential of nuclear energy.
“The intent [of the POPA report] is to provide an informative, educational document to help Congress by clarifying the technical details supporting the issue, independent of any political agendas,” said Hagengruber, emphasizing that the report is "a consensus document," although there were some dissenting voices during discussions. The report made several recommendations. The issue that provoked the most discussion, and which is most relevant for the debate in Congress, had to do with reprocessing of nuclear fuel. In this area, the subcommittee focused on three main points.
First, the POPA study asserted that there is still adequate time to properly evaluate promising technologies to enable Congress to make the most prudent decision with regard to reprocessing.
Second, the APS report emphasized that making a policy decision about reprocessing should not outpace the science, urging the Department of Energy to take sufficient time to identify the most cost-effective technology that would also be the most resistant to threats of proliferation.
“It is in the best interests of the US to maintain a reprocessing research program and seek a proliferation-resistant and cost-effective reprocessing technology,” Hagengruber emphasized in his testimony before Congress in June 2005. "We do not oppose eventual reprocessing, but believe an early decision could threaten future growth in the use of nuclear energy."
Third, the members of the POPA study group urged Congress to "do no harm" and refrain from forcing a decision on reprocessing before the issues of safety, proliferation and cost are fully understood. Doing so could backfire, diminishing the growing momentum for nuclear power among the general public.
GNEP's primary focus is on the development and deployment of new technologies to recycle nuclear fuel, minimize waste, and improve our ability to keep nuclear technologies and materials out of terrorist hands. In addition to building a new generation of nuclear power plants in the US, the US will work with other partner nations to achieve these lofty goals, in the process providing nuclear fuel to developing nations so they, too, can reap the benefits of nuclear energy in exchange for an agreement to forego enrichment and reprocessing activities on their own.
When GNEP was first announced, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman declared that the program “brings the promise of virtually limitless energy to emerging economies around the globe, in an environmentally friendly manner while reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation. If we can make GNEP a reality, we can make the world a better, cleaner, safer place to live.”
But GNEP's progress through Congress thus far has been less than smooth. Many members support nuclear energy, but there are concerns that GNEP “as presently formulated” might not be the best approach. Chief among the naysayers is David Hobson (R-OH), chair of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. That body's FY2007 report contained language sharply critical of GNEP, and Hobson has publicly expressed “serious policy, technical and financial reservations” about the project.
The Hobson committee “strongly endorses the concept of recycling spent nuclear fuel,” but finds GNEP lacking in its strategic plan for achieving this. For instance, GNEP favors an alternate recycling process using fast burner reactors, which might be technologically desirable, but which Hobson and his cohorts feel “adds significant cost, time and risk to the recycling effort.”
Other concerns center on the lack of a requirement for interim storage for hosting GNEP facilities, particularly in light of delays and mounting costs of the planned high-level nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain. The Hobson committee objected to the decision to place GNEP before Yucca Mountain in priority, particularly since there is a pressing need to begin licensing new reactors in the coming decade, before GNEP is ready for commercial-scale implementation.
Nonproliferation and national security issues round out the Hobson committee's list of objections, particularly with regard to the need to integrate spent fuel recycling, “keeping sensitive materials and facilities within a secure perimeter and minimizing offsite transportation of special nuclear materials.” GNEP makes no mention of this requirement, or of the need for interim storage.
In his Congressional testimony, Hagengruber acknowledged the validity of proliferation concerns, but stressed, “The ultimate assessment should not be based on whether it is theoretically possible to make a weapon from the waste,” but on evaluating the numerous practical factors associated with producing weapons for a national stockpile, many of which can be difficult to evaluate.
“In the end, technology alone can't stop the risk of an increase in proliferation, in such an international climate, so some sort of long-term institutional changes will be needed,” said Hagengruber. “That was part of the rationale for GNEP. Nuclear energy will go forward whether the US pursues it or not. Perhaps if we take a leadership role, we can shape that agenda.”
ON THE WEB
POPA Report: http://www.aps.org/public_affairs/proliferation-resistance
Hagengruber Congressional testimony: http://www.house.gov/science/hearings/energy05/june15/Hagengruber.pdf
House Report 109-474: http://thomas.loc.gov
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