Nuclear reuse initiative scrapped

The U.S. Energy Department will scrap a Bush administration initiative that could have brought billions of dollars in new spending -- and a lot more nuclear materials -- to South Carolina.

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, unveiled in 2006, was a plan to reprocess spent commercial nuclear fuel to maximize its efficiency, reduce waste volume and prevent its exploitation for nuclear weapons. Two of the 11 sites proposed for such reprocessing centers are in South Carolina.

The domestic portion of the international program, which has been criticized by environmental groups as too expensive and too dirty, will not be pursued any further.

"The Department has already decided not to continue the domestic GNEP program of the last administration," said DOE deputy press secretary Jen Stutsman in a statement Wednesday to Nuclear Engineering International magazine. "The long-term fuel cycle research and development program will continue, but not the near-term deployment of recycling facilities or fast reactors."

Tom Clements, the Southeast nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, said scrapping the program has both positive and negative impacts for South Carolina.

"Some of the big contractors have been anxious to get new missions for Savannah River Site, including a reprocessing facility, so this will be a big setback to those efforts," Mr. Clements said. "On the other hand, it is good news for the taxpayers and good news for the environment of South Carolina in that we wouldn't have all this material being shipped here."

One of the possible sites for a reprocessing facility is in Barnwell County adjacent to SRS. Savannah River National Laboratory within SRS also received a grant to study site possibilities.

Mr. Clements said recent estimates for such a facility have been incredibly high. "One DOE person working on the GNEP program estimated $15 billion -- just for the reprocessing facility itself," he said.

The GNEP facilities were to handle spent fuel from commercial nuclear plants -- not military weapons systems. Mr. Clements said DOE's decision not to pursue the project still leaves a major issue unresolved.

"The question of what to do with spent fuel still remains," he said. "Something will have to be done with it."

That lingering question, he said, opens the door for the possibility that SRS will somehow inherit all that waste at some point in the future.

Rick McLeod, executive director of the SRS Community Reuse Organization -- an economic development group working to bring new missions and jobs to the area -- said the decision not to pursue GNEP is no surprise, due in part to the controversy that has raged over the program.

"It might be closing one door and opening another," Mr. McLeod said. "It goes back to the entire issue of looking at nuclear fuel, so it might open new opportunities for reprocessing that we could take advantage of."

He noted that DOE Secretary Stephen Chu announced in March the department's intention to abandon a 27-year, $13.5 billion effort to establish a permanent nuclear waste repository in Nevada's Yucca Mountain and proposed finding "new strategies" to deal with the growing volume of nuclear material.

Those new strategies could include reprocessing activities under a different name than the GNEP, Mr. McLeod said.

"The concept might someday come full circle, but under a different name," he said.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

GRANT RECIPIENTS

Of 11 sites that received study grants to explore GNEP reprocessing facility plans, six are owned and operated by DOE. The study sites and sponsors are:

1. Atomic City, Idaho, EnergySolutions, LLC

2. Barnwell, S.C. EnergySolutions, LLC

3. Hanford Site, Washington Tri-City Industrial Development Council/Columbia Basin Consulting Group

4. Hobbs, N.M., Eddy Lea Energy Alliance

5. Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Regional Development Alliance, Inc.

6. Morris, Ill., General Electric Company

7. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tenn., Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee

8. Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Ky., Paducah Uranium Plant Asset Utilization, Inc.

9. Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Ohio, Piketon Initiative for Nuclear Independence, LLC

10. Roswell, N.M. EnergySolutions, LLC

11. Savannah River National Laboratory, S.C. Economic Development Partnership of Aiken and Edgefield Counties

Source: U.S. Department of Energy