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Monday, December 28, 1998

CONTACT: Paul Leventhal or Edwin Lyman (202)-822-8444


But Secretary Richardson Needs to Guarantee Adequate Funding

The Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) today welcomed the Department of Energy's announcement of a plan to avoid reprocessing most of the foreign and domestic spent fuel containing bomb-grade uranium that is now being stored at the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina.

DOE said it plans to get rid of the highly enriched uranium (HEU) by employing a new process known as "melt-and-dilute" that directly converts the spent fuel into low-enriched uranium (LEU) ingots. These ingots are well suited for geological disposal and unattractive for nuclear weapons use.

The alternative considered by DOE---reprocessing the spent fuel in the H-Canyon at SRS---would separate the HEU in a weapons-usable form and extend use of the aging reprocessing plant, posing both proliferation and environmental risks. The choice of melt-and-dilute over reprocessing is outlined in DOE's "Savannah River Site Spent Nuclear Fuel Management Draft Environmental Impact Statement," released today.

"Melt-and-dilute is a straightforward technology, but a few minor technical issues still must be resolved," NCI President Paul Leventhal said. "Turning this plan into reality will require adequate funding and a final record of decision before the 2000 election. We are concerned that this promising new technology could be smothered in the cradle by a lack of funding. We call on Energy Secretary Richardson to ensure that the melt-and-dilute program receives the funding it needs to get the process up and running on schedule."

"By choosing `melt-and-dilute,' DOE gets the security benefit of blending down bomb-grade uranium fuel into a non-weapons-usable form without having to reprocess it first," Leventhal said. "The plan allows DOE to proceed with shutting down and decommissioning the obsolete, un-safeguardable military reprocessing plants at SRS. This strengthens the U.S. commitment to irreversible nuclear arms reductions and non-proliferation. It also serves as a message to other nations that reprocessing is both unnecessary and dangerous. There is a serious need to demonstrate this technology to other countries. It is important to stabilize radioactive materials in a way that does not produce bomb material under the pretense of waste management."

Leventhal noted that President Bush declared reprocessing dead in 1992, and President Clinton affirmed this policy in 1993. "Now we are seeing practical steps being taken by DOE to end these wasteful and dangerous operations," he said. "But there is a danger that some die-hard reprocessing advocates in DOE are trying to make a mockery of White House policy by cutting the budget for alternative technologies. Instead of cutting the budget, DOE should be significantly expanding its investment in alternatives to reprocessing to stabilize weapons materials."

Melt-and-dilute has important environmental benefits, noted Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI Scientific Director. "Although DOE didn't choose the alternative with the smallest environmental impact---direct geologic disposal without any processing---melt- and-dilute will generate far less waste than reprocessing," Lyman said. It will also alleviate concerns about risks of rapid fuel corrosion and criticality events in a geological repository."

A total of 28 metric tons of spent fuel from foreign and domestic research reactors is expected to be received at SRS until 2035. Reprocessing at SRS can be shut down long before then if melt-and-dilute is used to dispose of the spent fuel. About 70% of the spent fuel will contain bomb-grade uranium.

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