INL to review plans for new nuclear fuel reprocessing plants
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
April 25, 2006


BOISE, Idaho — The Bush administration will rely on the Idaho National Laboratory for technical review of proposals by businesses and local government groups seeking to build a new plant to reprocess spent reactor fuel, a practice the U.S. discontinued in the 1970s because of concerns it was spurring the nuclear arms race.

“There’s a good bit of technology that we need to be a lot more sure of, and some good solid technical work that needs to be done before we would be in a position to make a decision to proceed with such a facility,” Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis Spurgeon said Tuesday after touring INL. “Idaho is the lead laboratory for nuclear energy and they are in effect my right arm when it comes to providing that technical analysis.”

But environmental watchdogs say the administration’s renewed push to reclaim radioactive material from fuel used in commercial power reactors could be the beginning of a new generation of nuclear waste. Although the federal Department of Energy has not decided where demonstration projects to test the advanced fuel recycling technologies will be located, Jeremy Maxand of the Snake River Alliance said Idaho still bears the pollution legacy of the now-defunct reprocessing of U.S. submarine and battleship reactor fuel at the eastern Idaho compound.

“We have some very serious contamination of the Snake River aquifer that will never be completely cleaned up and was the direct result of fuel reprocessing,” said Maxand, director of the Boise-based group. “The people of Idaho have learned the lesson that reprocessing does not work, but our political leaders and DOE apparently have not.”

Congress allocated $20 million this year for the Energy Department to begin evaluating proposals for a new reprocessing facility somewhere in the U.S. The goals would be to reduce the amount of nuclear waste that must be sent to a repository and reclaim some of the spent fuel for reuse in commercial reactors.

The Bush administration is now seeking $250 million in the Energy Department’s fiscal 2007 budget request to Congress to pursue development of a test project to show that fuel recycling can be done on a large scale with processes that create less waste and contain radioactive isotopes that decay to background levels of radioactivity at a faster rate.

An Energy Department request for “expressions of interest” by private companies, individuals and local governments seeking to build one of the new nuclear fuel reprocessing plants drew 36 replies this month, including Boise-based Washington Group International; Idaho Falls-based Regional Development Alliance Inc.; Benton County, Wash.; Columbia Basin Consulting Group of Richland, Wash.; and Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions.

President Bush wants to revive reprocessing of spent fuel as part of his package of initiatives to encourage greater use of nuclear power. Advanced reprocessing is part of the Energy Department’s new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership plan, creating a nuclear fuel allocation hierarchy where countries such as the U.S. would sell reactors and nuclear fuel to developing nations for power production, then accept the used fuel from those nations for reprocessing and disposal.

Spurgeon, who oversaw nuclear fuel recycling operations in the Ford administration, said the time is right for the U.S. to reconsider President Carter’s 1977 directive to suspend commercial reprocessing of nuclear fuel.

“The flaw under President Carter was the decision to end reprocessing was done unilaterally and several other countries decided to continue forward without us,” said Spurgeon. “The idea that we relook the advantages and potential disadvantages (of reprocessing) as part of the global nuclear partnership now is very real and appropriate.”

But Carah Ong, Washington office director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, said the Energy Department’s $250 million request for reprocessing money is not faring well on Capitol Hill, even though members of Congress originally asked DOE to investigate the feasibility of recycling spent fuel as a way to reduce demands on a high-level nuclear waste repository.

“There is a lot of support in Congress right now for cutting that $250 million request because the program the DOE has developed is not what many members of Congress had in mind when they started this debate,” she said. “They are starting to see this is just a bad, old, dirty idea that is being brought up again to waste taxpayers’ money on something we know doesn’t work.”