RadWaste Monitor Vol. 13 No. 20
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May 15, 2020

DOE Nuclear Energy Chief Reaffirms Interest in Foreign Reprocessing for U.S. Spent Fuel

By Chris Schneidmiller

Assistant Energy Secretary for Nuclear Energy Rita Baranwal reaffirmed Thursday her interest in finding a foreign provider of reprocessing for used fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants.

“We can collaborate with entities that currently recycle used fuel and not necessarily have to have our own recycling plant in-country, so that’s certainly an option that my group is looking at,” Baranwal said during a webinar hosted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA).

Baranwal offered similar comments during a February web event hosted by the American Nuclear Society. She has not discussed in detail what this evaluation involves. The Energy Department did not respond to a query on the matter by deadline for RadWaste Monitor.

In nearly a year as head of DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy, Baranwal has regularly discussed recycling as a possible solution to what she sees as a great waste – more than 80,000 metric tons of U.S. spent fuel that retains 95% of its energy potential, but under federal law is supposed to be buried deep underground and forgotten.

“In my mind commercial fuel is used fuel, it’s once-through, still has plenty of life left in it,” she said in online discussion with NEA Director-General William Magwood, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “As somebody who has spent the entirety of my career in nuclear fuel, to me it’s devastating that we call it waste.”

After achieving bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in materials engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Baranwal headed research and development on advanced nuclear fuels for naval reactors at Bechtel Bettis and then worked at Westinghouse as director of core engineering/nuclear fuel and then technology development. She directed the Energy Department’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear program from August 2016 to July 2019, before becoming assistant secretary for nuclear energy.

Her office’s primary mission is to promote the sustainment of the existing U.S. nuclear power fleet and development of new technologies for the market. That was on full display with her announcement Thursday of a $230 million program for commercial demonstration of advanced nuclear reactor technologies.

However, promoting new nuclear systems is inextricably connected to having something to do with the spent fuel they generate, according to Baranwal.

“One of the main drivers for why we’re looking at the possibility of recycling, is that we want our developers to be able to compete globally with other international competitors on offering nuclear reactor technologies to different countries,” Baranwal told Magwood. “Right now, our competition is offering a couple things that we cannot, and one of those is fuel takeback. To be able to take that fuel back we have to be able to do something with it.”

She briefly noted interim, centralized storage of used fuel away from nuclear power plants, but quickly turned back toward discussing recycling.

The United States has made only limited forays into nuclear fuel reprocessing, with just one commercial plant operating for six years before shutting down in 1972 and then closing permanently four years later. A few other commercial efforts never got off the ground. Recycling has been moribund for decades, first under the direction of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and later over concerns about cost and proliferation. Recycling would recover plutonium that could again fuel nuclear power plants, but also could be used in nuclear weapons.

In the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Congress gave the Energy Department until Jan. 31, 1998, to begin disposal of the nation’s used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. It took DOE until 2008 to apply for a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license to build and operate a deep geologic repository under Yucca Mountain, Nev. The Obama administration defunded that proceeding just two years later.

The Obama Energy Department eventually began a “consent-based” program for siting separate disposal sites for civilian and defense radioactive waste, but that didn’t get far before Donald Trump became president in January 2017. His administration tried in three consecutive budget proposals to persuade Congress to appropriate new funding to resume licensing of Yucca Mountain, but was rebuffed annually on Capitol Hill.

For the upcoming 2021 federal fiscal year, the administration switched strategies and requested $27.5 million for an Interim Storage and Nuclear Waste Fund Oversight program. That is intended, in part, to fund implementation of a “robust” program for interim storage of radioactive waste away from its point of generation, along with research and development of technologies for storage, transportation, and disposal.

In a March 1 appearance on Capitol Hill, Baranwal said the Energy Department planned to issue a request for proposals for basic design of an interim storage facility. That procurement notice does not appear to have been released, and the federal agency has not discussed its plans.

Meanwhile, Japan, France, India, and other countries are recycling their own spent fuel.

“I do think this is an area where there can be plenty of international collaboration,” Baranwal said Thursday. “There are entities in countries that already do it, and so, in my opinion, there may not be a need for us to reinvent the wheel, if you will.”

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