U.S. Department of Energy "exploring" spent fuel reprocessing again

by Frank von Hippel

Andrew Griffith, deputy assistant energy secretary for the nuclear fuel cycle and supply chain in DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy, is reported to have announced at a recent seminar on spent fuel management that the office is exploring a reprocessing initiative that would start on a small scale.

This initiative may be driven in part by Congressional frustration with a lack of progress on spent fuel disposal since the Obama Administration defunded the Yucca Mountain radioactive-waste repository in 2010. Under a heading, "used nuclear fuel disposition R&D," the December 2019 conference report on the Energy and Water Appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2020 (p. 38) ordered the DOE to "report on innovative options for disposition of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel management" and to commission a report by the National Academies on "the merits and viability of different nuclear fuel cycles and technology options."

In 2006, the previous Republican Administration under George W. Bush made a major effort to launch a US reprocessing program. Reprocessing advocates at Argonne National Laboratory argued that the US would never require a second repository if the transuranic elements were removed from spent fuel and fissioned in fast-neutron reactors, reducing the long-term heat load from the radionuclides in spent fuel. The Bush Administration embraced this idea and proposed a Global Nuclear Energy Partnership in which the nuclear-weapon states and Japan would reprocess the world's spent fuel and build fast-neutron reactors to fission the recovered plutonium. France's fuel cycle company, AREVA, made similar arguments and began to negotiate a deal with the Bush Administration to sell the US a very large reprocessing plant. The leadership of DOE even told Congress that reprocessing would cost the government less than reimbursing US nuclear utilities for the storage casks that they were buying because of the delay of a national repository. In 2007, the IPFM laid out the actual costs and proliferation dangers in a report, Managing Spent Fuel in the United States: The Illogic of Reprocessing. This report provided the basis for many Congressional briefings and Congress's support for construction of a reprocessing plant waned.

In parallel, the idea of fast-neutron reactors is being revived by enthusiasts at the Idaho National Laboratory where Experiment Breeder Reactors I and II (EBR I and II) were built in the 1950s and 1960s. In its appropriations for Fiscal Year (FY) 2020, Congress provided $65 million for Conceptual Design Phase I of a sodium-cooled fast-neutron Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) (p. 39). This is the same amount Congress appropriated in FY 2019. The Trump Administration had requested (p. 279) a $35 million increase at the same time that it proposed a 38 percent cut in the DOE's overall budget for nuclear energy research and development, a decrease that Congress turned into an increase of 13 percent (p. 36).

The VTR design is based on that of INL's Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which the Clinton Administration shut down in 1994 as the last step in the termination of US breeder reactor research and development. That termination began two decades earlier in the Ford and Carter Administrations after India used plutonium from its US-supported breeder reactor program for a test nuclear explosion in 1974. The Ford and Carter Administrations launched reviews that concluded that, in addition to the proliferation liabilities associated with plutonium recycle, sodium-cooled breeder reactors would not be economically competitive with light water reactors operating on a once-through fuel cycle.