Thursday, August 3, 2000 Dr. Ed Lyman, NCI, 202-822-8444

Beatrice Brailsford, SRA, 208-234-4782




Environmental Management Office Rejects Proliferation-Prone Technology



The Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based non-proliferation organization, and Idahos Snake River Alliance, today condemned a Department of Energy (DOE) plan to be implemented at Argonne National Laboratory-West (ANL-W) to reprocess 26 metric tons (MT) of spent fuel from plutonium breeder reactors using a dangerous and proliferation-prone experimental technology known as "pyroprocessing.


Direct disposal of this breeder reactor fuel is consistent with environmental protection, nuclear non-proliferation and cost savings, while the pyroprocessing choice is unproven and dangerous, said Dr. Edwin Lyman, Scientific Director at the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, a non-profit organization which focuses on nuclear non-proliferation issues. There is no technical justification for pyroprocessing breeder reactor fuel.


Pyroprocessing, also known as electrometallurgical treatment (EMT), is a spent fuel reprocessing technology originally developed for the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) program, which was terminated by Congress in 1994. Although billed by its promoters as a proliferation-resistant technology because it doesn't separate pure weapons-usable plutonium if operated as designed, numerous reviews have identified ways in which it could be modified to do exactly that, said Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance in Pocatello.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of pyroprocessing is its association with the Accelerator Transmutation of Waste (ATW) program, also supported by NE. This program, which could result in the reprocessing of all the commercial spent fuel in the United States, would be in direct violation of U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy, yet it is being endorsed by several influential members of Congress for its pork-barrel potential, said Dr. Lyman.

DOE presented its "preferred alternative" for managing 60 MT of breeder fuel in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Treatment and Management of Sodium-Bonded Spent Nuclear Fuel, which was released last Friday. The 26 MT to be pyroprocessed consists primarily of spent fuel from the shutdown Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) at ANL-W. The 34 MT that is to be stored was discharged from the Fermi-I fast breeder reactor in Michigan, a sodium-cooled reactor shutdown in 1972. The Fermi fuel will be stored while DOE validates techniques other than reprocessing for preparing the fuel for direct disposal in a geologic repository.


The organizations noted that the amount of fuel involved in the decision represents less than half of the amount of fuel that DOE originally proposed for reprocessing, thereby revealing that support for pyroprocessing is not universal within the department.


The different approaches to disposal correspond to the difference in preferences of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology (NE), which funds development of pyroprocessing and controls the fate of the EBR-II fuel, and the Office of Environmental Management (EM), which is responsible for the Fermi-I fuel. EM declined earlier this year to transfer responsibility for the Fermi-I fuel to NE, even though it considered such a transfer. A November 1999 memo prepared by EM reveals that the office determined that direct disposal of the Fermi fuel was cheaper than electrometallurgical processing and that waste disposal criteria likely could be met by direct disposal.


NE has maintained that pyroprocessing of sodium-bonded spent fuel is necessary because the presence of metallic sodium, a chemically reactive substance, could cause problems in a geologic repository. However, according to Dr. Lyman, this argument is flawed for two reasons: one, NE has not demonstrated that the sodium in the fuel would render it unsuitable for repository disposal; and two, there are cheaper and less dangerous methods for removing the sodium from the "blanket" fuel assemblies, which form over 80% by weight of the material to be processed.


"There is no significant difference between the fuel NE wants to pyroprocess and the fuel EM wants to store," said Dr. Lyman. "The only difference is that EM has made a decision based on sound analysis of cost and relevant waste management and non-proliferation issues.


The pyroprocessing program at ANL-W has not worked well. A release of radiation during routine maintenance exposed 11 workers to radioactivity and led to a two-month shutdown of the facility. However, even with a two-month extension, ANL-W was only able to reprocess about 1 MT of fuel, or only about 64% of the goal which had been established, by August 1999. DOE was only able to claim that the demonstration program met or exceeded all key performance criteria by changing the original criteria, in other words, it was only by moving the goal posts that NE was able claim success, said Dr. Lyman.


That pyroprocessing separates actinides --- plutonium and heavier isotopes --- is of concern from a waste management perspective. Pyroprocessing generates a variety of unique waste streams which could well increase the difficulty of disposing of the fuel, said Brailsford. The people of Idaho and the nation do not need to be confronted with the additional waste management burden presented by reprocessing of breeder fuel.