April 2000

US Department of Energy Opts Against Reprocessing of Research Reactor Fuel

Washington, DC, April 12, 2000 (ENS)
By Cat Lazaroff

[Posted 17/04/2000]

The Department of Energy has decided that spent nuclear fuel should be melted down for permanent disposal, rather than reprocessed for reuse as fuel or other products. The decision, which environmentalists say will prove safer than reuse of the fuel, is also being hailed as a victory for nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

The policy was established in a report being issued publicly by the Department of Energy (DOE) this week. The "Savannah River Site Spent Fuel Management Final Environmental Impact Statement" evaluates alternatives for the safe and efficient management of spent nuclear fuel from power plants that is stored at or scheduled to be received by the DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The DOE had been considering a process in which the spent fuel would be reprocessed, separating the wastes into highly enriched uranium and a large volume of liquid radioactive waste. Critics feared the uranium could be used to build nuclear weapons, hindering U.S. and international moves toward disarmament and nonproliferation. In addition, the disposal of radioactive liquid waste is considered more hazardous and difficult than disposal of solid wastes.

Instead, the DOE is leaning toward melting down the wastes and mixing them with nonreactive substances, forming metal ingots that the agency says can be safely stored in permanent repositories. The process also makes the uranium in the wastes unsuitable for making bombs.

"The melt-and-dilute technology under development at SRS will further our efforts to reduce the danger from weapons of mass destruction," Richardson said in a statement. "Also, it will reduce waste generation and provide a cost effective, long term way to manage aluminum based spent fuel."

The DOE's choice of a new technology which does not reprocess the spent fuel avoids adding to the stockpile of nuclear weapons material, said the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson deserves congratulations for making sure that this important new policy was actively pursued and approved," said NCI Executive Director Tom Clements. "Now he must act decisively to make sure there is an adequate budget to implement the policy and get the job done."

Spent fuel rods underwater at a receiving basin for off-site fuels at the Savannah River Site The decision covers highly enriched uranium spent fuels from research reactors in the U.S. and similar wastes imported from other countries fordisposal. Other forms of spent fuel covered in the Environmental Impact Statement will be reprocessed, but both NCI and NRDC view the decision on the highly enriched uranium spent fuel as an essential step in hastening the end of reprocessing in the U.S. and an important example for other nations. "This decision sends a positive non-proliferation signal internationally and is a critical step toward the closing of reprocessing facilities at SRS," said NRDC Staff Attorney David Adelman. "These plants were built as an integral part of fissile material production for weapons during the Cold War, and they are no longer needed. Long term funding for melt-and-dilute must still be assured to keep the shutdown of these plants on track."

Of the 68 tonnes of fuel covered in the Environmental Impact Statement, about 48 tonnes - 60 percent of the mass, 97 percent of the volume of the wastes - would be subjected to the melt and dilute treatment. The processed ingots would be destined for eventual shipment to the planned permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Melt-and-dilute involves the melting in an oven of the aluminum-clad highly enriched uranium research reactor spent fuel assemblies, with conversion of the melted material into low-enriched uranium ingots. In order to demonstrate the new technology, the DOE plans to melt highly enriched uranium spent fuel in an oven soon to be installed in the old L-Reactor building at the Savannah River Site.

The full-scale treatment facility is expected to be operational in the L-Reactor building at Savannah in fiscal year 2008. L-Reactor was permanently closed in the late 1980's after decades of plutonium and tritium production for weapons.

Spent nuclear fuel pools like this hold tons of reactor wastes at Savannah River Site DOE's Savannah River Site, located near Aiken, South Carolina, currently stores a large quantity of foreign and domestic spent fuel in pools and is scheduled to continue receiving such material from numerous research reactors around the world until 2009. The United States originally supplied the bomb-grade uranium fuel to reactors in over 30 countries and numerous U.S. universities, but after realizing the proliferation risks of such supply began a program to convert the wastes into forms incapable of being used for weapons. DOE's concerted effort to convert research reactors to low enriched uranium ingots, known as the Reduced Enrichment in Research and Test Reactors (RERTR), has proved to be one of the U.S. government's most successful non-proliferation initiatives. Under the RERTR program, DOE agreed to accept spent highly enriched uranium fuel for disposition in the U.S. in order to reduce risks of its diversion overseas for weapons.

NCI and NRDC praised Secretary Richardson for fulfilling a commitment made in the 1996 by one of his predecessors, Hazel O'Leary, to develop non-reprocessing technologies for management of the returning spent fuel for environmental and non-proliferation reasons.

"We congratulate Secretary Richardson for honoring DOE's earlier commitment to the American people to pursue non-reprocessing disposal options for this bomb-grade spent fuel," said Clements. "As the U.S. moves to treat weapons-grade nuclear material as waste rather than as a valuable commodity to be introduced into commerce, foreign states will be encouraged to do the same."

The H-Canyon corridor at the Savannah River Site - one of the two remaining DOE reprocessing facilities. The U.S. terminated commercial reprocessing of spent fuel in 1972 but has yet to present a firm timetable for closing the two remaining DOE reprocessing facilities, F- and H-Canyons, both located at the Savannah River Site. "From an environmental perspective, the people of South Carolina and Georgia should welcome this decision by DOE, but they deserve to be presented a timetable for closure of the dirty and dangerous reprocessing facilities," said Clements.

The DOE will issue a record of decision sometime after the end of a 30 day public comment period beginning Friday. The final Environmental Impact Statement will be published in the Federal Register on Friday.

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