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United States: Latest Push for Plutonium-Fueled Reactors Meets Resistance

Copyright © 2021 Energy Intelligence Group

A long-dormant debate in the US over the wisdom of pursuing a domestic closed-loop fuel cycle is rearing its head with the US Department of Energy (DOE) pushing for development of a "versatile test reactor" -- or VTR -- that proponents say they need to test "advanced" fuels. If the American Nuclear Society (ANS) has its way, a successful VTR would be used to burn surplus plutonium from the weapons program, reversing DOE's current plans to dilute and dispose the material. The last serious attempt in the US to close the fuel cycle was the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership under former President George W. Bush in the early 2000s. The terms "reprocessing" and "breeder" had become so sensitive by then that advocates instead argued for "recycling" spent fuel in a way that would avoid complete plutonium separation that occurs in traditional reprocessing; and fast-neutron reactors would "burn" rather than "breed" spent fuel, thereby at least partially alleviating the nuclear waste problem. This time around, advocates are putting more emphasis on design features they say will avoid major safety and proliferation problems. The center of this push is the DOE's Idaho National Laboratory (INL), long a testbed for fast-reactor technologies and the proposed host of the VTR. It's unclear whether the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden will throw serious weight behind the effort and so far Congress has proved skeptical. The DOE would also have to be persuaded to pivot from its "dilute-and-dispose" option for surplus plutonium and instead advocate using it in the VTR (NIW Sep.4'20; NIW May18'18). While that would alleviate a major problem the agency has with its current plans to dispose diluted plutonium at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, it would open up another can of worms from nonproliferation activists and potentially run into major roadblocks in Congress (NIW Dec.4'20). Providing a Rationale for the VTR? In February 2019, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, appointed by former President Donald Trump, announced plans to develop the VTR to “revitalize and expand the US nuclear industry.” At the same time, the department was funding a handful of companies to design fast-neutron reactors whose fuel could be tested in the VTR, thus providing a rationale for the new reactor, according to critics. The VTR would be based on GE Hitachi's (GEH) Prism fast-neutron reactor, itself based on INL's Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which was shut down in 1994 after the DOE ended an existing fast-neutron reactor development program. The DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy on Dec. 21 requested public comment on a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the VTR citing "a gap between required testing needs" for "advanced nuclear fuels and materials in a fast-neutron-spectrum irradiation environment" and "available capabilities." According to its schedule, the DOE plans to follow up with a final EIS this spring, with a decision on proceeding with development by this fall. For nonproliferation experts, the VTR program is a last-ditch effort to make good on decades of investments in a technology that has so far failed to gain a commercial foothold, with the promise of newer, safer, proliferation-resistant designs. But for supporters, like the ANS, the industry is more equipped than ever to handle closed-loop reactors safely. "In the current generation of reactors, safeguards weren't at the forefront of considering the design of the reactor, it was sort of tacked on at the end," ANS President Mary Lou Dunzik-Gougar told Energy Intelligence. "But in our new generation of reactors, safeguards are really being incorporated in the design process." ANS President-elect Steve Nesbit told Energy Intelligence that "plutonium can be used safely and securely as a reactor fuel under proper precautions and safeguards," a framework for which is established by existing UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Many of the new designs boast proliferation resilience, on the basis that the plutonium used isn't weapons-grade or that it is promptly diluted in the closed-loop chain reaction. But in a call for safeguards discussions with the IAEA in the design phase, Stimson Center Nuclear Safeguards fellow James Casterton in a recent report presentation cited a "lack of clarity on the degree of the plutonium separation." Other experts point out that non-weapons-grade plutonium is still usable in a weapon.

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