Nov. 16, 2011: MARKEY:
New GAO report shows cost, waste disposal, proliferation risks still loom, Markey calls for funding to be eliminated
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, today issued the following comment on the release of a GAO report on nuclear reprocessing entitled “DOE Needs to Enhance Planning for Technology Assessment and Collaboration with Industry and Other Countries” that was requested by Rep. Markey, Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and former Congressman Rick Boucher.
“It turns out that the phrase ‘nuclear recycling’ is an oxymoron,” said Rep. Markey. “These technologies are unwanted by industry, expensive and prone to proliferation risks. It also turns out that in France, most of the of the highly radioactive byproducts of reprocessing that are described as being ‘recyclable’ are not recycled in the first place. To those who look to France as their nuclear inspiration, this report says ‘au contraire’.”
The GAO report can be found HERE .
Nuclear reprocessing involves the separation of materials that could be used to construct a nuclear weapon from the rest of the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel that comes out of nuclear reactors in order to “recycle” it into new nuclear fuel rods. The U.S. adopted a policy not to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in the 1970s because of the risk the technology could be used by unfriendly nations or terrorists to develop nuclear weapons. In 2006, the Bush Administration’s Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it would reconsider this policy and proposed to construct multi-billion dollar nuclear reprocessing demonstration facilities. Congress eliminated the funding for this proposal in fiscal year 2009, and directed DOE to conduct research on reprocessing technologies, including research on its proliferation risks. DOE is requesting $280 million for nuclear fuel cycle and reactor concepts research and development in 2012. The House of Representatives has voted to provide $269 million of these funds, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has included $219.8 million.
“This GAO report suggests that nuclear reprocessing is just a really expensive way to burn money,” said Rep. Markey. “I believe these wasteful programs should be eliminated.”
In its July 2011 draft report to DOE, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future found that no currently available or reasonably foreseeable reprocessing technology could alter U.S. nuclear waste disposal challenges for at least several decades, and that it was premature for the U.S. to alter its policy on reprocessing because of the uncertainties associated with the merits and commercial viability of these technologies.
The GAO report analyzed DOE’s research program on nuclear reprocessing and its proliferation risks, and other countries’ experiences with nuclear reprocessing. The main findings include:
- DOE has failed to assess the technology readiness, time it will take to develop or costs associated with the reprocessing technologies it has selected for further evaluation.
- DOE has failed to develop a plan for industrial collaboration on nuclear reprocessing research, adding to uncertainties as to whether industry has an interest in commercializing and deploying any of the technologies being evaluated.
- The Office of Nuclear Energy within DOE has failed to develop a formal means of collaborating with the National Nuclear Security Administration on the evaluation of the proliferation and terrorism risks associated with nuclear reprocessing.
- Although France claims that nuclear reprocessing reduces the amount of high-level waste that requires permanent disposition, GAO found that much of these wastes instead are placed in long-term storage until research and development programs demonstrate whether advanced technologies can recycle them. For the small quantities of wastes that are recycled, the current process results in spent fuel that is also set aside pending the results of research and development efforts. If these efforts are not successful, then the reduction of high-level wastes that would require disposition would be negligible.
- GAO also found that while the current French reprocessing strategy prevents creation of surplus plutonium, it does not reduce the 35 tons of nondefense plutonium currently in storage.