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March 2006, Report of the ADVANCED NUCLEAR TRANSFORMATION TECHNOLOGY SUBCOMMITTEE of the NUCLEAR ENERGY RESEARCH ADVISORY COMMITTEE

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) marks a major change in the direction of the DOE’s nuclear energy R&D program. It is a coherent plan to test technologies that promise to markedly reduce the problem of nuclear waste treatment and to reduce the proliferation risk in a world with a greatly expanded nuclear power program. It brings the U.S. program into much closer alignment with that of the other major nuclear energy states.

GNEP proposes to take spent fuel from existing light water reactors (LWRs), separate the four transuranics (plutonium, neptunium, americium, and curium called here TRU) that are the main components contributing to repository problems and to proliferation concerns, and destroy them through multiple recycles in fast-spectrum reactors (FRs). GNEP builds on the technology developed over the past five years for efficiently separating the main components of spent reactor fuel into uranium that can be easily disposed of, fission fragments of relatively short lifetimes, and the plutonium and other actinides that generate both the waste isolation and proliferation potential problems. It is a bold program that has a high expectation of success, but will require twenty or so years of R&D to fully evaluate its promise.

Our subcommittee had its first briefing on GNEP on February 28 and March 1, 2006. This report summarizes our observations. The program’s details are evolving rapidly, not surprising considering how new it is. We have had a first look at the program’s timelines, its major facilities, the role of pyroprocessing and aqueous processing, fast reactor fuel, manpower issues, and the possible role that the previous program of recycling TRU in LWRs might have even in this new world. Of particular importance is the creation of a carefully constructed roadmap with a realistic time line and clear mission statements for major facilities proposed for this program. Considering the fast pace of the program’s evolution many of the issues we raise here may have already been addressed by the time this report is reviewed by NERAC.