Thursday, January 26, 2006 - Bush Seeks to Jump-Start Nuclear Power - Bush Seeks to Jump-Start Nuclear Power

Proposed Test of New Waste-Reprocessing MethodsAims to Ease Concerns Over Storage
By JOHN J. FIALKA Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNALJanuary 26, 2006; Page A4
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration plans to announce a $250 million initiative to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, a first step toward reversing a 1970s policy that rejected reprocessing as too dangerous to pursue.
The administration's decision to put the money into its fiscal 2007 budget to test new technologies is part of an effort to jump-start the nuclear-power industry at a time when energy prices are high and concerns about global warming make nuclear power plants more acceptable.
According to nuclear industry officials and others briefed on the proposal in recent weeks, the program could be announced as early as next week in President Bush's State of the Union address. If the technology works, it could vastly reduce the amount of spent nuclear waste that would have to be buried in underground storage, such as at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, set to open after 2012.
The initiative will also explore using one or more temporary, above-ground nuclear-waste storage sites to relieve the logjam that has left thousands of tons of nuclear waste stored around reactors, many located near big cities. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Department of Energy experts have worried about the damage that could be caused by a terrorist attack on the spent fuel.
The heart of the initiative is reprocessing technology called UREX+ being developed by Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. It is a method of removing plutonium and other long-lived radioactive elements in spent nuclear fuel that makes the elements reusable in nuclear power plants, but difficult to use for making nuclear weapons.
The process, according to its scientific backers, would also save the bulk of other elements in spent nuclear fuel, primarily uranium, to be reused or disposed of in facilities that don't require thousands of years of storage, such as the plant being prepared at Yucca Mountain. Phillip J. Finck, an Argonne official, told the House Science Committee last summer that UREX+ would reduce the nation's eventual need for more nuclear-waste storage by "a factor of more than 100."
The technology involves burning plutonium and other long-lived byproducts in special "fast" reactors. However, Dr. Finck added: "The practicality of these schemes is not yet established and requires additional scientific and engineering research."
The Bush proposal, tentatively called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, would also give U.S. vendors, such as General Electric Co., opportunities to sell nuclear-power reactors and nuclear fuel to developing nations. It would promote the export of simpler, smaller and less-costly reactors and nuclear fuel on the condition that the U.S. would take back the spent fuel for reprocessing. While a safe way to reprocess nuclear waste also would remove a licensing hurdle to new nuclear plants in the U.S., building nuclear plants here will remain a costly and lengthy process.
The proposal is likely to renew a decades-old fight in Congress on U.S. nuclear-waste policy. "We're supportive of the concepts as a company and as an industry," said Christopher Crane, chief nuclear officer for Exelon Corp., which operates 17 nuclear reactors among the 103 running in the U.S. "We do agree that there is a good deal of unused energy in the fuel we have discharged from our reactors. We think it's positive that the U.S. Department of Energy and the administration want to look at ways to handle that."
Nuclear-industry officials said that without reprocessing, new nuclear plants called for by President Bush in his 2001 energy policy may not be licensed. Yucca Mountain will reach its storage limit -- 70,000 tons -- with waste produced by 2010 from existing plants.
The Department of Energy predicts that as many as eight more underground-storage sites may be needed by the end of the century if the current cycle for power plant fuel continues.
Thomas B. Cochran, a nuclear physicist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which promoted the earlier policy to ban nuclear reprocessing along with other environmental and arms control groups, called the new reprocessing technology "uneconomical, unreliable, unsafe and unworkable." He predicted the utility industry wouldn't support its long-term costs, particularly the "fast" reactors that transform spent fuel by bombarding it with neutrons -- powerful, subatomic particles -- that can further reduce the radioactive waste content.
Ernest Muniz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former Clinton administration official at the Department of Energy, said he supports the renewed research and development of reprocessing, but predicts that it will require decades of research. Dr. Muniz said he also supports the idea of temporary above-ground waste-storage sites because it helps cool the heat-generating elements in the waste -- reducing a major complication for underground storage facilities.
Some of the changes the administration is proposing, particularly those that affect Yucca Mountain, will require action by Congress. A wild card in that debate is Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has led his state's battle to stop the project, which is 90 miles from Las Vegas. He has regarded reprocessing as an alternative to long-term storage, but may have some interest in supporting a process that reduces the amount of spent fuel stored at Yucca Mountain.
The original reprocessing technique chopped up spent nuclear-fuel rods and dissolved them in acid, extracting plutonium in an almost pure form. It was derived in the 1950s from the U.S. nuclear-weapons program, which uses plutonium as the primary metal to make atomic warheads explode. Japan, Russia and France use variants of this process, called PUREX, for power-plant fuel recycling, but the U.S. stopped research on its use during the Carter administration.
President Carter, a former nuclear engineer, and other officials were persuaded that separating pure plutonium and encouraging recycling around the world might encourage developing nations to use the plutonium to make bombs. The UREX+ process is designed to reduce this problem by extracting plutonium along with other heavy and highly radioactive elements that make it too hot to handle without advanced robotics to remove and deal with the material.


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