End GNEP, focus on start-ups, says US panel

30 October 2007

The USA should replace GNEP by a less aggressive research program, instead giving top priority to achieving new reactor start-ups, a panel of the US National Academy of Sciences has concluded.

Domestic radioactive waste management, security and nuclear fuel supply needs do not justify the commercial-scale reprocessing facilities visualized in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) research and development (R&D) program, and there is "no economic justification to proceed", the panel found. Instead, the R&D program to develop nuclear reprocessing and recycling technology and facilities under GNEP should be replaced by a "less aggressive" program, and higher priority should be given to facilitating the start-up of new nuclear power plants under the Nuclear Power 2010 scheme.

According to the National Academies' report, the technologies required for achieving GNEP's goals are "too early in development" to justify the Department of Energy (DoE)'s accelerated schedule for construction of commercial facilities. DoE claims that it is essential to pursue the program on the commercial scale to save time and money, but the report's committee believes the opposite, and also questioned whether the need to reduce the overall amount of radioactive waste, another stated goal of the program, currently exists. Moreover, it said, there has been insufficient peer review.

The DoE begged to differ, with Dennis Spurgeon, assistant secretary for nuclear energy, saying the National Academies' concerns were based on a misconception. A comprehensive program to reprocess all commercial used fuel would take decades to develop and GNEP's current plans were consistent with the pace and process being recommended by the National Academies committee, he told journalists.

The committee advised that instead of GNEP, the Nuclear Power 2010 program, a joint DOE-industry effort to support the near-term deployment of new nuclear power plants, should take the highest priority. Progress with this program had been far slower than proposed, the report concluded. "If nuclear power is indeed going to play an increased role in meeting US energy needs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Nuclear Power 2010 needs full funding in all aspects," the committee said. Another program that was unlikely to reach its goals because of the current focus on GNEP was the Generation-IV project to develop a next-generation nuclear power plant in operation by 2017. The National Hydrogen Initiative (NHI) to generate hydrogen from nuclear energy would be dependent on the success of Generation-IV.

The review of DoE nuclear research programm was carried out at the behest of the Bush administration through the Office of Management and Budget. The panel was tasked with evaluating GNEP, Nuclear Power 2010, the Generation-IV and NHI programme, and the facilities at the Idaho National Laboratories (INL).

GNEP aims to develop a closed nuclear fuel cycle that would enhance energy security while promoting non-proliferation. The major technical part is the development and deployment of technologies for reprocessing and re-use of used nuclear fuel and long-lived radioactive waste. Sixteen countries have signed up to the scheme, under which so-called 'fuel-cycle nations' would provide assured supplies of nuclear fuel to 'client' nations. The international aspects of GNEP were outside the remit of the National Academies' report.

Further information

The National Academies

Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)

WNA's US Nuclear Power Industry information paper

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