The next U.S. president will face a complex challenge as he develops nuclear policy. He is on record as opposing the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository. At the same time, he supports nuclear energy as an important part of America’s energy mix (see article). So does Steven Chu, the nominee for Energy Secretary. Does this mean the nuclear loan guarantees from the 2005 EPAct will at least continue at their current level under the Obama administration? If so, this will pose interesting questions about what the new administration plans to do with spent nuclear fuel.
This raises even more interesting and important questions about the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a hugely ambitious Bush initiative under which the U.S. and other “fuel cycle states” would manage other countries’ nuclear fuel cycles, including taking back spent fuel. If Yucca Mountain is not on Obama’s agenda, then how credible would U.S. fuel cycle assurances be from the viewpoint of the GNEP “fuel recipient states”? Not very credible at all—unless Obama and Chu revisit the issue of interim spent fuel storage, i.e., storage at one or more non-permanent repositories.
The latter alternative has been explicitly ruled out by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as it tries to rework GNEP fuel cycle proposals in the wake of the cold reception its original back-end proposal—destroying the plutonium in spent fuel by burning it in fast-neutron reactors—has received from congress. But if Yucca Mountain is truly out at this time, it is hard to imagine any new nuclear development scenario in the U.S. that does not involve interim storage.
Interim storage would restore credibility to front-end fuel supply assurances and thereby preserve GNEP as a promising international framework within which to manage nuclear proliferation risks—another area in which Obama has indicated interest. If Obama and Chu rethink the interim storage alternative, this presents a shining commercial opportunity for Canada and its allegedly beleaguered state-owned reactor maker, AECL. This of course involves DUPIC, which stands for Direct Use of Pressurized Water Reactor Spent Fuel in CANDU.
DUPIC is one of the fuel cycle proposals on which DOE is currently seeking public advice (see DOE’s GNEP PEIS), even though it logically would require interim storage of spent PWR fuel. So if interim strorage is on with Obama, DUPIC remains a viable GNEP option. The sale of even one CANDU in the U.S. would be a major breakthrough for AECL and for Canada.
For me GNEP does not make any sense without fast reactors, or at least some way of getting almost complete use of the original fuel. DUPIC is interesting, but only provides a partial solution. My feeling is that CANDU and AECL are headed for the same shelf as the Avro Arrow and the Bricklin car.
I think Canada should sell AECL to AREVA as soon as possible and let AREVA to the marketing to get AECL expertise working on new heavy water reactors in India. The thorium based systems that will result from this could then be used in Canada too.
GNEP is problematic because it requires too much long distance transportation of politically volatile nuclear fuel. It would only take one pirate attack to end the whole thing.
Leave aside the political issues involved in transporting spent fuel across the oceans (navy escorts would take care of the pirate problem), and look at GNEP in the context of just the U.S. and Canada. Fast burners are out for now. If somebody in Canada were to take advantage of this, the result could be a small fleet of CANDUs burning spent U.S. PWR fuel (which makes up about 66 percent of the civilian spent fuel inventory in the U.S.). The revenues entailed in even a small fleet would be staggering. If plutonium separation gets back onto the agenda some time in the future, the same CANDUs could burn that too. Why should Canada hand this opportunity to France?