Friday, August 4, 2000 (202)-822-8444
BOMB-GRADE FUEL IS A MAJOR NON-PROLIFERATION VICTORY
WASHINGTON---The Department of Energys (DOE's) formal decision, announced this week, to melt and dilute rather than reprocess spent nuclear fuel containing bomb-grade uranium is a major victory for non-proliferation and the environment, according to Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a non-proliferation research and advocacy center.
The melt-and-dilute technology will be used to process some 29 metric tons (MT) of spent fuel being collected from research reactors around the world and throughout the United States and put into storage at the Savannah River Site (SRS). The spent fuel, containing more than 14 MT of weapon-usable, highly enriched uranium (HEU), will be converted into a non-weapon-usable form. The technology involves melting the spent fuel in a furnace and diluting it with depleted uranium to produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) metal ingots for disposal. Reprocessing, the historical approach at SRS for treating this type of fuel, would have separated out the HEU in pure form.
An important security benefit of DOE's decision is that there will be no need to reprocess the spent fuel at the SRS H-Canyon --- a plant that played a crucial role in the production of materials for U.S. nuclear weapons. "DOE must now provide a timetable for timely shutdown of this facility in order to close another chapter of Cold War history," said Dr. Edwin Lyman, NCI scientific director.
We are certainly pleased that DOE has followed through, despite a lot of political opposition, and selected melt-and-dilute as the preferred alternative, said Dr. Lyman. But this is only the beginning. Its going to take sustained funding and political support to actually get this project up and running in the time frame that is needed.
NCI played a pivotal role in pressing DOE to consider alternatives to reprocessing and in helping to sustain the melt-and-dilute program from its inception. In 1999, NCI sent a letter of protest after learning that SRS --- contrary to Congressional intent --- had secretly transferred funds from melt-and-dilute research to reprocessing plant maintenance, resulting in suspension of the program and reassignment of the technical staff. DOE subsequently restored the funding and the program.
DOE anticipates that the design of a pilot-scale facility to test the approach will be completed in September, with construction slated to begin in FY 2001. Operation of a full-scale plant employing more than 100 people is expected to begin in FY 2008. "This project demonstrates that what's good for nuclear non-proliferation is also good for the local workforce and community," Leventhal said.
DOE's concerted effort to convert research reactors to LEU, known as the Reduced Enrichment in Research and Test Reactors (RERTR), has proved to be one of the U.S. government's most successful non-proliferation initiatives. Under the RERTR program, DOE agreed to accept spent HEU fuel for disposition in the U.S. in order to reduce risks of its diversion or theft overseas for weapons. NCI actively supported the spent fuel take-back program and won a commitment from DOE to develop an alternative to reprocessing the fuel.