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Assessing the Goals, Schedule and Costs of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership

Date: 
Thursday, April 6, 2006 - 12:00am
Location: 
Washington, D.C.
Subcommittees: 

Opening Statement By Hon. Mike Honda

I thank Chairwoman Biggert for holding this hearing today so that we can learn more about the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which President Bush announced without providing much detail in February with his budget request.

As we all know, currently the United States does not reprocess nuclear spent fuel because of concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons material.

In addition, reprocessing is not cost effective, since uranium supplies around the world are plentiful and can be fabricated into fuel at far lest cost than reprocessing spent fuel.  The economics of this situation have not changed and are not going to change for a long time.

Which brings us to the real reason that the Bush Administration is putting forward a nuclear fuel reprocessing program – the problem of dealing with nuclear waste.

The politics of Yucca Mountain have made it clear that siting and licensing a second waste repository is highly unlikely.  At this point, it still isn’t clear how things are going to proceed with Yucca Mountain.

The Bush Administration has seized upon this political situation to justify reprocessing of spent fuel to reduce the heat of the material that would potentially be put in Yucca Mountain in order to expand the capacity of the proposed repository.

Yesterday the Administration sent a legislative proposal to Congress to expedite the repository which would lift the current statutory limit on the amount of waste that could be stored there.   Such a move is essential to justifying developing a reprocessing program.

What troubles me about this whole Global Nuclear Energy Partnership proposal is the haste with which it seems to have been developed and the fact that a very small number of people seem to have made all of the key decisions without much input from industry or the scientific community.

For example, it appears that the technology for reprocessing spent fuel, UREX+, has already been selected by the advocates for the program.  While the final decision hasn’t been made, it seems that the decision has essentially been made to use metal fuel, which would require the construction of a pyroprocessing plant for each fast reactor that will be used to convert reprocessed fuel into electricity.

What isn’t clear to me is who made these decisions, what process was used to make those decisions, or even why they have already been made, given the premature stage of the technologies and huge uncertainty as to whether they will be successful and cost effective.

The spent nuclear fuel we have now can safely be stored in dry casks for 50 years or more, giving us plenty of time to do more research, more fully evaluate technology alternatives, and have greater engagement from all interested parties in the decision-making process.

For a program that may cost as much as hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money, it seems that such study and scrutiny is the least we can do to ensure that the best policy is what is pursued.

From where I sit, the way that the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership has been put together and then proposed looks a lot like the way in which the President took the nation to war in Iraq.

The policy decisions have already been made by a small, isolated group within the Administration without all of the facts and without input from experts from outside their group.  Once that decision was made, then a justification for it was developed and sold to Congress.

A story posted on the website of the scientific journal Nature yesterday about the disbanding of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board, which was chartered to provide the Secretary with timely, balanced external advice on issues of importance, only reinforces the impression that outside input is not welcome on major programs such as GNEP.

But, as with Iraq, there seem to be major uncertainties in GNEP: uncertainties in the technical feasibility, the cost, and uncertainty in the ability of the agency in charge to successfully carry out such a large effort.

I don’t believe that it is wise for us to rush to judgment on GNEP as we rushed to war, and I certainly don’t want to see the kind of outcome that a rushed decision and incomplete plan are sure to deliver.  This decision doesn’t need to be made today; we have other means for storing nuclear waste temporarily while we wait for all of the facts.

In closing, Madame Chairwoman, I thank you again for holding this hearing so that we can try to get some answers on how these decisions were made, we can hear some outside thoughts on this proposal, and perhaps hear some alternative options for dealing with the problem.

Download the opening statement text.

Witnesses

Panel

1 - Shane Johnson
Director (acting) Office of Nuclear Energy Science and Technology Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy Science and Technology Department of Energy
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2 - Dr. Neil Todreas
Kepco Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Professor of Mechanical Engineering Massachusetts Institute of Technology Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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3 - Dr. Richard Garwin
IBM Fellow Emeritus Thomas J. Watson Research Center Thomas J. Watson Research Center
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4 - David Modeen
Vice President, Nuclear Power and Chief Nuclear Officer Electric Power Research Institute Electric Power Research Institute
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109th Congress