Second quarter of 2000

DOE's decision to dispose of bomb-grade spent fuel hailed as a major non-proliferation victory

WISE-Paris, 30 May 2000

[Posted 30/05/2000]

The DOE takes an important step in non-proliferation policy with the decision to dispose of spent fuel containing highly-enriched uranium, a bomb-grade material.

Nuclear Control Institute & Natural Resources Defense Council

Press release, 11 April 2000

Washington, D.C.-- The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) today welcomed the Department of Energy's decision to dispose of spent fuel containing highly-enriched uranium (HEU) as waste--rather than recovering the bomb-grade material--as a major non-proliferation accomplishment. The policy was established in an Environmental Impact Statement being issued publicly by the Department of Energy this week.

The Department of Energy's (DOE) choice of a new technology which does not reprocess the spent fuel avoids adding to the stockpile of nuclear weapons material is a major victory for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, said the two organizations. "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."

DOE's new policy was announced in the Final Environmental Impact Statement on Spent Nuclear Fuel Management at DOE's Savannah River Site (SRS). The document is currently arriving via mail to stakeholders and is expected to be noticed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Federal Register on Friday. Under the new approach, foreign and domestic spent fuel containing highly-enriched uranium will be treated at SRS with a recently developed proliferation-resistant technology called "melt and dilute." The process yields low-grade uranium that is unsuitable for use in nuclear weapons but suitable for disposal as waste. In the past, HEU had been extracted from spent fuel in reprocessing plants at SRS. The process also has fewer environmental impacts than reprocessing, which results in separated HEU and a large volume of liquid radioactive waste.

Although other forms of spent fuel covered in the EIS will be reprocessed, both NCI and NRDC view the decision on the HEU spent fuel as an essential step in hastening the end of reprocessing in the United States 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.

"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 NCI's Clements. Of the 68 tonnes of fuel covered in the EIS, approximately 48 tonnes will be subjected to the melt and dilute treatment. Thus, 60% in mass (and 97% in volume) of the material covered in the EIS will be treated with the new melt & dilute technology and the remainder reprocessed.

Melt-and-dilute involves the melting in an oven of the aluminum-clad HEU research-reactor spent fuel assemblies, with conversion of the melted material into low-enriched (LEU) ingots, a form unsuitable for direct use in nuclear weapons. In order to demonstrate the new technology, HEU spent fuel is scheduled to be melted in an oven soon to be installed in the old L-Reactor building at SRS. The full-scale treatment facility is expected to be operational in the L-Reactor building in FY 2008. L-Reactor was permanently closed in the late 1980's after decades of plutonium and tritium production for weapons.

DOE's Savannah River Site, located near Aiken, South Carolina, currently stores a large quantity of foreign and domestic aluminum-clad HEU research-reactor 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 these reactors to LEU fuel incapable of being used for weapons.

DOE's concerted effort to convert research reactors to LEU, 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 HEU fuel for disposition in the U.S. in order to reduce risks of its diversion overseas for weapons.

NCI and NRDC also 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.

The two non-proliferation groups also lauded DOE's decision as it exemplifies a long-standing U.S. non-proliferation strategy of leading by example. "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," said NCI's Clements. 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, located at SRS.

Contact: Tom Clements, NCI, 202-822-8444
David Adelman, NRDC, 202-289-2371

For more information on efforts to end commerce in highly-enriched uranium (HEU), go to the NCI web site at:

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