Fatal blow to GNEP?

29 June 2009

The US Department of Energy is cancelling the wide-ranging environmental analysis of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) project. Its decision follows a change in government policy on commercial reprocessing.


The proposed GNEP program, which was part of President George Bush's Advanced Energy Initiative, is intended to support a safe, secure and sustainable expansion of nuclear energy, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the GNEP program would promote technologies that support economic, sustained production of nuclear-generated electricity, while reducing the impacts associated with used nuclear fuel disposal and reducing proliferation risks. As yet, DoE has no specific proposed actions for the international component of the GNEP program. Rather, the USA, through the GNEP program, is considering various initiatives to work cooperatively with other countries. So far, 25 countries have joined the GNEP partnership.


In a notice published in the Federal Register, the Department of Energy (DoE) said that it had decided to cancel the GNEP programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) because it is no longer pursuing domestic commercial reprocessing, which was the primary focus of the prior administration's domestic GNEP program.


In March 2006, the DoE published an advance notice of intent to prepare an EIS for the GNEP technology demonstration program, soliciting comments on the proposed scope, alternatives and environmental issues to be analyzed. The DoE stated that the technology demonstration program would demonstrate technologies needed to implement a closed nuclear fuel cycle that enables recycling and consumption of used fuel in a proliferation-resistant manner.


The comments that the DoE received included suggestions to prepare an environmental impact statement addressing the entire GNEP program. The DoE agreed and in October 2008 announced the availability of its draft GNEP PEIS. The document provides an analysis of the potential environmental consequences of alternatives to the present US open fuel cycle, in which nuclear fuel is used one time and eventually sent to geologic disposal. DoE's stated preference in the draft was to close the fuel cycle, although it did not identify a specific preferred alternative.


The draft PEIS assessed six programmatic domestic alternatives: no action alternative-existing once-through uranium fuel cycle; fast reactor recycle fuel cycle alternative; thermal/fast reactor recycle fuel cycle alternative; thermal reactor recycle fuel cycle alternative; once-through fuel cycle alternative using thorium; and once-through fuel cycle alternative using heavy water reactors or high temperature gas-cooled reactors.


Although the future of GNEP looks uncertain, with its budget having been cut to zero, the DoE will continue to study proliferation-resistant fuel cycles and waste management strategies. The Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 provides $145 million for such research and development (R&D). As described in the President Obama's 2010 budget request, the DoE's fuel cycle R&D's focus is on "long-term, science-based R&D of technologies with the potential to produce beneficial changes to the manner in which the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear waste is managed."


In 2007, a panel of the US National Academy of Sciences suggested that the commercial-scale reprocessing facilities envisaged under GNEP were not economically justifiable.