Nucular Nirvana: Reasons to Mistrust the US Government on Nuclear Energy

Chemical & Engineering News: Government & Policy – Reprocessing Key To Nuclear Plan (html, requires American Chemical Society membership)

Chemical & Engineering News, Vol. 85, No. 25, June 8, 2007 (pdf, no membership required)

What is GNEP? It stands for Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. Should you care about it? You bet! GNEP is perhaps the most ill-advised of the many pathetically formulated energy policies put forth by the current White House. It is undoubtedly the most dangerous energy policy put forth by the White House.

GNEP is a program for the reprocessing of nuclear waste. This is a regime that Bush appointees of the Department of Energy are pushing adamantly. It is also a program that is staunchly opposed by proponents of nuclear energy from Jimmy Carter to the current leading government advisers.

It would be foolish to attempt to summarize or otherwise plagiarize this fine article by Jeff Johnson of Chemical & Engineering News, but it is worthwhile to whet the reader’s appetite to read to the article. This article is a must read. Here are a few highlights.

The DoE undersecretary pushing GNEP is named Clay Sell. Sell advocates “we do not need six new nuclear power plants in this country. We need 60, and the world needs 600. And, we need them all in a fairly short period of time.” It is difficult to tell whether Sell is doing what his name implies, or whether he is sounding a legitimate alarm. After all, 600 power plants will produce a huge amount of nuclear waste, and the US currently lacks sufficient storage for all this waste.

That is why Sell is advocating GNEP, a global regime for reprocessing spent fuel into more energetic, more radioactive, more dangerous and more toxic plutonium for future “breeder” plants. Thus, the program will (theoretically) reduce the amount of (more toxic) waste by using existing nuclear waste further for energy. This proposal sounds nice, until one reads the article further to realize that there are more than a few holes in this proposal.

First, the Yucca Mountain facility has sufficient capacity to store the nuclear waste being generated for years to come.

 …a study by the nuclear industry’s research arm, the Electric Power Research Institute… estimated [that] the area that includes Yucca Mountain is sufficient to store 260,000 to 570,000 tons of spent fuel–far more than the 63,000 metric-ton legal cap for commercial reactors and two to five times the amount that will be generated by the current operating U.S. power reactors.

Hence, the first premise is patently false. The other premises in Sell’s argument are also false.Breeder plants are not worthwhile or economical:

 As it turns out, breeder reactors could, by tapping the energy in U-238 [Uranium 238], produce more plutonium than was used to fuel the initial reactions. Now, fewer than a half-dozen reprocessing and demonstration breeder reactor facilities operate worldwide.

Reprocessing poses a huge national security risk. That’s why Jimmy Carter stopped it.

Carter’s concern was heightened following India’s detonation of a nuclear bomb in 1974. That bomb was made from plutonium that was reprocessed from an Indian civilian reactor provided by Canada with U.S. technical support.

Reprocessing is environmentally unsafe. (This point is perhaps obvious, but still worth making.)

 The countries [that have already reprocessed nuclear waste] have stockpiled the plutonium but are not close to building a system of reactors to recycle the plutonium or a permanent waste repository. Reprocessing for some of these countries, particularly the U.K., has also resulted in extensive radioactivity pollution problems.

And, the following are choice words from nuclear energy advocates.

 “GNEP is a waste of money,” said Richard Garwin, a nuclear physicist and frequent government adviser on nuclear issues…He urged the U.S. to continue on its current path of storing the waste on-site while developing a geological repository. This strategy is far cheaper as well as more proliferation-resistant than reprocessing, he added.

Garwin is joined by Ernest Moniz and John Deutch,Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, nuclear power advocates, and authors of an influential report on nuclear power. They, too, oppose GNEP’s size and scope. Moniz warned that the U.S. has done far too little reprocessing research over the past 20-plus years to lay the groundwork for a commercial-scale facility. He noted as well that there is no uranium shortage to justify reprocessing and reusing spent fuel in the first place.


Frank von Hippel, a physicist, former White ouse official, and international affairs professor at Princeton University…[says] “We need to focus on what we are doing now and do it better,” …”I’ve got no problem with nuclear power. The problem is a group of people have been bitten by the plutonium breeder reactor bug and want to keep the R&D money flowing. This is a wasteful program and a dangerous one with regard to weapons material proliferation.”

Suffice it to say that the above quotes represent a very small fraction of the shocking revelations in this article. So, please, read it!

The scientific, engineering and energy policy communities are in general agreement. The short term imperative is efficient use of fossil fuels with the gradual mixing in of electricity generated by solar, wind and other alternative sources. The long term imperative is an electric economy powered by a large variety of renewable sources.

One must wonder, therefore, why the current White House and Department of Energy insist on funding projects that are known to be energetic and economic duds, like fuel cells and nuclear reprocessing. It seems as if money is being wasted on useless research in order to keep oil scarce and valuable.


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