Department of Energy Opts Against Reprocessing of Research Reactor Fuel
Washington, DC, April 12, 2000 (ENS)
By Cat Lazaroff
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.