08/08/2008 - 11:04

The future of GNEP: Domestic stakeholders

Leonor Tomero

Leonor Tomero

Tomero is director for Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the...


While the Bush administration has focused much attention on forging an international coalition to support the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), there are also considerable domestic stakeholders involved. In particular, to promote and build support for the program, the Energy Department has cultivated relationships with the national laboratories, universities, industry, and local businesses and governments throughout the country. To do so, it has mainly used money, allocating $328 million in grants to interested domestic parties since the program was officially formed in February 2006.

National laboratories

GNEP plans to close the nuclear fuel cycle by developing and advancing technologies and reactors to reprocess and reuse spent fuel. Federal funding for reprocessing and fast neutron reactors at the country's national laboratories is currently more than double what it was prior to GNEP's inception, and the labs have been GNEP's main funding beneficiary. In 2005, the Bush administration sought $45 million for such work at the labs, and Congress appropriated $52 million; this year, the labs received approximately $126 million.

GNEP research and development is now based at the Idaho National Laboratory ($44.5 million in 2008 funds), which has the lead role for designing a reprocessing facility and for fuel fabrication research. Argonne National Laboratory ($19.5 million in 2008) is the lead for research on fast neutron reactors. Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico (roughly $24 million in 2008 funds) receives significant GNEP funding for engineering research, supporting engineering and science activities at universities and coordinating aspects of the international initiatives related to GNEP. The same is true of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee (about $24 million in 2008 funds), which received money for reprocessing technology and fuel research. (Idaho, Argonne, and Los Alamos compete for funding; they're currently vying to win a future research facility and the attendant research dollars, part of the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative [AFCI], GNEP's research and development program.)

While these labs receive the lion's share of GNEP's research funding, all of the national labs now receive money from GNEP and thus, have a vested interest in the program. The other labs--Sandia National Laboratories, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory among them--each received $3­ million–$4 million, with other smaller federal facilities receiving less. In addition to $75 million for its Idaho-based lab-liaison office, Energy's headquarters received $45 million in AFCI funding to manage and oversee the program, as well as to seek support from other countries.

For 2009, the total AFCI request is more than $300 million, although Congress will likely provide only about one-half of it--equivalent to the level of funding provided for 2008.

Nuclear energy industry

Energy has made a concerted effort to build industry support for GNEP's goal of closing the fuel cycle, soliciting input from utilities and power generators on technology and promoting reprocessing by arguing that it would allow nuclear waste currently stored at power plants to be moved off-site to future reprocessing sites. To begin large-scale deployment of the program, it has shifted from just long-term research goals--which are at least several decades away from successful development--focusing also on near-term, commercial-scale facilities and the use of existing technology. It is doing so even though this technology doesn't meet GNEP's original objectives, which include decreasing the radioactivity of nuclear waste and increasing proliferation-resistance.

But industry has yet to really bite. A 2007 report by the Keystone Center--underwritten by the industry's lobbying body, the Nuclear Energy Institute and its members--concluded that "reprocessing of spent fuel will not be cost-effective in the foreseeable future" and didn't constitute a viable long-term waste solution. Not surprisingly, so far, the nuclear industry hasn't committed any money to fund reprocessing or to deploy fast neutron reactors, which are significantly more expensive and difficult to operate than existing U.S. light water reactors.

The French nuclear company AREVA (and its U.S. subsidiary AREVA NC, headed by former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham) has been the most ardent industry supporter. With its significant reprocessing experience in France, AREVA could gain financially from the construction and operation of a reprocessing facility in the United States. AREVA's growing interest in the U.S. market can also be attributed to its loss of foreign customers--Germany, Japan, and Switzerland to name three--who haven't renewed their reprocessing contracts.

AREVA is leading a corporate alliance, which received a $5.6 million Energy contract in 2007--equivalent to more than one-third of the $16.3 million in funding given out to industry for technical and conceptual design studies for GNEP last year--and a 2008 contract extension valued at $5.7 million to evaluate potential technologies to close the fuel cycle and create design studies for reprocessing and fast neutron reactor facilities and plans for their commercialization. Other companies that have received GNEP grants include Energy Solutions, GE-Hitachi Nuclear Americas, and General Atomics.

And AREVA is committed to pushing ahead with renewed U.S.-based reprocessing with or without GNEP. It stated in an April letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Quite apart from the Department of Energy's GNEP activities, AREVA is evaluating establishment of a commercial used fuel recycling center in the U.S. . . . Current projections suggest that construction could begin as early as 2013, with receipt [of] used fuel in 2017."

Local constituencies

Before Congress started becoming skeptical of GNEP, in 2006 it directed Energy to look for potential U.S.-reprocessing sites. This year, in its 2008 appropriations, Congress included a requirement that 50 percent of AFCI funding be allocated for research at U.S. universities and companies. Energy has used these directives to solicit and build support for reprocessing in communities and to train young scientists and engineers throughout the country.

In August 2007, Energy selected 11 U.S. university-led grant recipient teams--composed of 38 universities in 22 states--for cooperative research projects under its Nuclear Energy Research Initiative, widening GNEP's geographic support. Many other schools throughout the country were included as research team members. Similarly, Energy awarded $405,000 in AFCI fellowships to those studying the nuclear fuel cycle at geographically disperse universities.1 As part of the grants, AFCI fellows will travel to Washington to learn more about the initiative and work at the national labs during the summer. The fellowships not only train science and engineering students in this field, but steer them toward GNEP technology early in their careers in the hopes of creating long-term supporters.

While implementing the 2006 congressional siting directive, Energy solicited expressions of interest from communities interested in hosting a reprocessing or fast reactor facility, offering up to $5 million per site. It subsequently selected 11 sites to apply for $16 million in grants and to provide site-characterization reports.2 In 2007, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and GNEP's Program Manager Dennis Spurgeon noted that "many communities across the country" were interested in hosting the facilities.

But last year, an increasingly skeptical Congress, following the lead of the House and Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittees, barred Energy from building a reprocessing facility or fast neutron reactor. And recently, Energy announced that it would no longer consider "project-specific proposals for the siting, construction, and operation of a nuclear fuel recycling center, an advanced recycling reactor, and an advanced fuel cycle research facility." Instead, it said it would focus on the feasibility of the technologies. This decision may result in less active local support for GNEP, now that the near-term construction of reprocessing and fast reactor facilities seems less likely.

Similarly, a 2008 congressional directive that Energy consider sites that volunteered to host GNEP facilities for the consolidation of spent fuel from decommissioned reactors could dampen much of the local support. Such instructions highlight the risk that states or local communities that volunteered for reprocessing facilities might someday become de facto indefinite nuclear waste storage sites instead. Given the opposition by Nevada to burying nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain and the not-in-my-backyard reaction of most other states, there probably won't be much enthusiasm around the country for hosting indefinite or long-term waste storage sites. Nevertheless, certain members of Congress such as South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham continue to favor the idea of hosting a reprocessing facility in their state.

Government supporters

While Graham can continue to stump for GNEP, other influential executive branch and congressional supporters will soon no longer be in key positions.

Congress. New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici, a strong GNEP supporter, will retire in January after six terms in the Senate. He has pushed the program as an energy policy priority both as ranking member and former chairman on the Senate Energy Committee (the authorizing committee with jurisdiction over energy issues) and ranking member and former chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, which appropriates GNEP funding. As such, he has been able to steer AFCI funding to Los Alamos and Sandia--both located in his home state. Emphasizing his support for reprocessing, Domenici recently proposed legislation that would authorize the construction of U.S. reprocessing facilities; the bill has no prospect for approval.

Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig, a member of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over GNEP, is also retiring in January. Like Domenici, Craig has used his position to support GNEP and ensure significant funding for the Idaho National Laboratory.

Executive branch. Prior to Assistant Secretary Dennis Spurgeon's appointment in 2006, the head of the Office of Nuclear Energy hadn't been an assistant-secretary-level position in more than a decade. Spurgeon's responsibility for coordinating GNEP activities and his assistant-secretary title has increased access, political influence, and added prominence to the program. Spurgeon has long worked on fuel cycle issues, most recently as executive vice president and chief operating officer at USEC, an energy company that supplies downblended uranium fuel from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads to U.S. reactors. He also was assistant director for the fuel cycle in the Energy Research and Development Administration, a precursor agency to Energy, during the Ford administration. But with a new presidential administration, Spurgeon's political position will change—and thereby the support or direction of GNEP could change with it.

Another senior GNEP backer in the executive branch, Deputy Energy Secretary Clay Sell, resigned from Energy in February. Sell had previously served as a staff director and majority clerk of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, working directly for Domenici. As Energy's second highest ranking official, Sell played a key role in promoting GNEP and keeping GNEP's visibility at a high level.

GNEP's uncertain future

The congressional attitude toward GNEP has become more dour--particularly from key Subcommittee chairs--because of skepticism about costs, proliferation risks, and Energy's shifting plan and poor management record. This skepticism has resulted in significant funding cuts. Last year, House and Senate Appropriation committees cut GNEP funding by more than 50 percent. And GNEP-related funding will likely be cut by a similar amount this year judging from House and Senate Committee Energy and Water Development Appropriations bills and the likelihood of a continuing resolution that will freeze funding at last year's level.

The same leaders who have funding and oversight authority for GNEP this year and who have been critical, or at least skeptical, of GNEP in the past--including the chairs of the House and Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittees, Pete Visclosky and Byron Dorgan, and the chairs of the Senate and House Energy Committees, Jeff Bingaman and John Dingell--will remain in their positions next year, putting GNEP's long-term high-level funding and a rush to implementation in doubt.

In the 2008 omnibus appropriations, Congress also banned the use of funding for any construction of GNEP or AFCI demonstration facilities. Similar language was included in this year's House Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill report, which cited the committee's lack of support for Energy's "rushed, poorly defined, expansive, and expensive [GNEP] proposal." It also reprimanded Energy for squandering previously appropriated funds.

The House warned that Energy's attempts to increase congressional support by creating constituencies and distributing research funds among the 10 national laboratories was fruitless: "The success of [GNEP] will be judged on the quality of research it produces, not on the number of national laboratories it supports."

These doubts have been reinforced by reports from the National Academy of Sciences and Government Accountability Office that were critical of Energy's plans for rapidly developing and deploying reprocessing and fast reactor facilities. For its part, the Congressional Budget Office concluded, "Reprocessing of U.S. spent fuel would cost 25 percent more than plans for direct disposal" in a permanent repository. In addition, Democratic Senators Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Ron Wyden (Oregon), John Kerry (Massachusetts), Charles Schumer (New York), Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Bernard Sanders (Vermont), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Edward Kennedy (Massachusetts), and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) wrote to Dorgan and Domenici in April urging them to cut GNEP funding.

Nevertheless, pressure to implement GNEP persists. In February, Energy announced its intention to create a new government entity to manage the program. It envisions that this new entity would be funded by a sixfold increase in the Nuclear Waste Fund user fee, which is intended to cover the cost of permanent waste repositories and is paid for by utilities and their customers. This change, if approved by Congress, would allow GNEP to continue without yearly congressional funding and bypass the legislative appropriations and oversight process. As of August, bipartisan legislation was proposed in the House that would allow the use of Nuclear Waste Fund money for reprocessing as part of legislation also relaxing the ban on offshore drilling, though the outcome of this latest reprocessing proposal remains uncertain and will likely be opposed by House and Senate Energy Committee chairs.

Thus, GNEP's long-term future will depend on a combination of decisions made in Congress and the next president. While it's unlikely that legislation to allow Nuclear Waste Fund money to be used to support GNEP-related programs will pass this session, such legislation signals that some significant and influential members of Congress, along with the other domestic constituencies that Energy has carefully cultivated, still believe that closing the fuel cycle through reprocessing is a viable solution to the nuclear waste problem.

1The universities include Purdue University, University of North Texas, Rutgers University, North Carolina State University, MIT, University of Cincinnati, University of California, Berkley, University of Wisconsin, and University of Florida.
2The full list of sites (and sponsors) include: Atomic City, Idaho (EnergySolutions, LLC); Barnwell, South Carolina (EnergySolutions, LLC); Hanford, Washington (Columbia Basin Consulting Group/Tri-City Industrial Development Council); Hobbs, New Mexico (Eddy Lea Energy Alliance); Idaho National Laboratory (Regional Development Alliance, Inc.); Morris, Illinois (General Electric Company); Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee (Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee); Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Kentucky (Paducah Uranium Plant Asset Utilization, Inc.); Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, Ohio (Piketon Initiative for Nuclear Independence, LLC); Roswell, New Mexico (EnergySolutions, LLC); and Savannah River National Laboratory, South Carolina (Economic Development Partnership of Aiken and Edgefield Counties).