June 24, 1999

Secretary Bill Richardson
Department of Energy
1000 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20585

Dear Secretary Richardson:

We are writing to express our opposition in the strongest terms to the suspension and possible elimination of the "alternative technology" program for highly enriched-uranium spent nuclear fuel at the Savannah River Site. It is imperative that you take immediate steps to ensure the continuance of this program, as stipulated in the 1996 Record of Decision ("1996 ROD") for the Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel Environmental Impact Statement.

The suspension of the alternative technology program is fundamentally inconsistent with the Department of Energy's current plans under the National Environmental Policy Act to use "melt and dilute," the preferred alternative technology, to treat aluminum-clad spent nuclear fuel for long-term disposal. The suspension of the program is also contrary to assurances the Department of Energy ("DOE") gave our organizations when the disposition of U.S.-origin foreign spent fuel was being debated -- namely, that alternatives to reprocessing would be developed and implemented. Elimination of support for melt and dilute would leave DOE with no alternative for treatment except reprocessing in the SRS "canyons," which are extremely expensive to operate, create much greater volume of liquid waste, and produce weapons-usable nuclear materials.

During the mid-1990s, DOE prepared an Environmental Impact Statement on disposal of highly enriched spent nuclear fuel generated by foreign countries but of United States' origin. This process was integral to DOE's Reduced Enrichment in Research and Test Reactors ("RERTR") program, a non-proliferation program designed to curtail the spread of weapons-grade uranium. Our organizations have long supported, and continue to support the RERTR program and to applaud its successes.

The 1996 ROD on the Foreign Research Reactor EIS contains two central elements: (1) U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel would be returned to DOE for disposal; and (2) a program would be implemented by DOE to develop non-reprocessing technologies for managing spent fuel. Our organizations were instrumental in calling for investigation of non-reprocessing methods for managing spent nuclear fuel on non-proliferation, environmental, and economic grounds.

At the time the 1996 ROD was issued, and since, DOE assured our organizations that alternative technologies would be aggressively pursued. The progress of these efforts was affirmed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ("Draft EIS") on Spent Nuclear Fuel Management, published in December 1998. In the Draft EIS, DOE stated that it "has greater confidence now than at the time of the Foreign Research Reactor EIS's Record of Decision in the feasibility and availability of non-reprocessing technologies." Further, the Draft EIS selected one of the program's technologies, "melt and dilute," as the preferred option for processing both foreign and domestic aluminum-clad spent nuclear fuel.

Nevertheless, despite the 1996 ROD and the findings in the Draft EIS, over the past eight months DOE has removed 60% of the FY 1999 budget of $10 million appropriated for the alternative technology program - 40% in November 1998 and another 20% in April 1999. This money was apparently transferred to the F&H Canyon Exhaust Upgrades project. As a result of these transfers, in May 1999 DOE suspended the alternative technology program and reassigned all of its staff because the program's budget had been expended. The very existence of the alternative technology program thus now appears to be threatened.

DOE's actions violate the requirement of the 1996 ROD that alternative technologies be "aggressively pursued," at minimum, "through approximately the end of 1999." DOE's failure to comply with the basic terms of its 1996 ROD is without rational justification, is arbitrary and capricious and in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. We are especially indignant because DOE's sudden reversal constitutes a breach of faith with those of us who worked closely with DOE in support of the RERTR spent fuel take-back program, a program we continue actively to support.

Furthermore, although DOE has submitted a reprogramming request to Congress to meet the added costs of the F&H Canyon Exhaust Upgrades, this canyon project currently holds in reserve about $2 million of the funds transferred from the alternative technology program. These funds are needed to ensure continuation of the alternative technology program, but DOE nonetheless refuses to transfer them back.

DOE's position is completely contradictory: at the same time DOE determined that melt-and-dilute was the preferred alternative under the Draft EIS, DOE began defunding the alternative technology program. DOE's failure to safeguard the funding of the alternative technology program, as appropriated by Congress, is therefore indefensible.

We urge you to take immediate action to see to it that funding for the alternative technology program is restored and that the terms of the 1996 ROD are fulfilled. We further ask that you investigate, on an expedited basis, all aspects of the suspension of the melt and dilute program, which according to DOE provides substantial environmental benefits and is one of the "most proven" alternative technologies available. Time is of the essence. The disruption and uncertain future of the alternative technology program could lead its staff to choose not to return; similarly, the longer the suspension of work, the more difficult it will be to reassemble the alternative technology team. Accordingly, your most important objectives should be to reactivate the program immediately and to ensure that funding is stable for the remainder of FY 1999 and in subsequent years.

We request that you provide to us an explanation of how and why the funds were transferred from the alternative technology program, how this program was permitted to run out of funds, and what steps DOE intends to take to reactivate it. Further, we believe that it is essential that a meeting be scheduled with you and your staff as soon as feasible to discuss the status of the alternative technology program and DOE's plans to comply fully with the terms of the 1996 ROD and the pending EIS and Record of Decision on Spent Nuclear Fuel Management.

Thank you for your consideration of this urgent matter. We look forward to hearing from you shortly.


Tom Clements
Executive Director
Nuclear Control Institute

Tom Cochran
Director, Nuclear Program
Wade Green Chair for Nuclear Policy
Natural Resources Defense Council

David Albright
Institute for Science and International Security

Frank von Hippel
Professor of Public and International Affairs
Princeton University
(as an individual, not for his organization)

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