As Energy Department officials make a major push for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a proposal to recycle spent nuclear fuel, many members of Congress and energy industry executives are wondering what GNEP could mean for the troubled Yucca Mountain waste storage facility. During today's OnPoint, Steve Kraft, senior director of used fuel management at the Nuclear Energy Institute, explains the industry's feelings about fuel reprocessing. Plus, he talks about the need for Yucca Mountain legislation, temporary storage at Yucca and how GNEP could affect nuclear proliferation concerns.
Brian Stempeck: Hello, welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Here with me today is Steve Kraft of the Nuclear Energy Institute where he is the senior director of used fuel management. Steve thanks a lot of being here today.
Steve Kraft: Thanks Brian. Glad to be here.
Brian Stempeck: The Energy Department right now is making a major push for its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. This is a massive plan. They're moving really quickly. $250 million dollars they want for next year, making rounds on the Hill. Do you think they're moving to fast right now?
Steve Kraft: Oh, oh, no. We think they're moving at the right place. The nuclear industry supports the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. It's an important program for the long range future of nuclear energy. The technology would not be available probably for decades from now but if they don't start developing them now, they're just not going to have them ready on time.
Brian Stempeck: Now supporters of this plan basically point to the fact that this gives you the ability to avoid building basically a second Yucca Mountain when, in the event the first one stores up with existing waste. Do you think that's accurate and will this kind of put that off?
Steve Kraft: I think it is accurate that it avoids a second repository. You know it's always been a dream in the nuclear industry to have a fuel cycle that reduces the amount of waste in terms of toxicity and heat such that you can put the waste into one single repository. That repository would last almost forever. Whether it's a century or beyond that we certainly couldn't say, the technologies that DOE is talking about developing or certainly those that will do that but in the long run. You still have to develop Yucca Mountain today, though.
Brian Stempeck: For GNEP though the cost estimates right now that we're hearing from the secretary from the Energy Department are really pretty much all over the map. Anywhere from $20 million dollars to $100 billion dollars, similar efforts in Japan have gone way over cost estimates. What do you think is actually going to be the final tab here? I mean obviously it gets pretty far off.
Steve Kraft: I don't think anyone could predict at this time and in fact we support the request for the $250 million dollars. It has to get started and a lot of that money will go to determining what the program should be and what the cost estimates will be. And yes, I think it is too early to tell what the ultimate cost would be. But you know the cost savings associated with eliminating a second repository are huge. Current repository projected to be in today's dollars $50-60 billion dollars. Eliminate one of those repositories that's a large amount of money.
Brian Stempeck: One of the other ideas that people talk about who support this plan is that this basically enables the U.S. nuclear industry to start developing new nuclear plants in other parts of the world. In countries where previously you might not trust them with some of the proliferation concerns but this way you can basically use some of the fuel there and help them manage that, lease them the field. Is that accurate? I mean is that really a business opportunity?
Steve Kraft: Yes it, oh it's a major business opportunity. But beyond it being a business opportunity at the core of GNEP, to me personally is the idea that you keep nuclear materials out of the hands of people who ought not have them. Having nuclear materials locked up in a power reactor where you can monitor it and safeguard it, that's one thing. But having the materials loose in reprocessing plants and enrichment plants that's where the proliferation danger comes. So this idea of the Fuel Lease Back Program to me is at the very core of how it makes this work worldwide.
Brian Stempeck: At the same time though, a lot of the critics of this plan are saying that when you break down nuclear fuel into all these different components. If you're doing a lot of different sites around the world not just in the United States you're actually creating more of a proliferation problem. I mean isn't that kind of creating more of a security risk than we currently have?
Steve Kraft: It depends upon where you do it and that's the whole point. That you do it in a limited number of countries, countries that are reliable partners, countries that believe in safeguards and nonproliferation as strongly as we do. And then each country would monitor each other. The technology that DOE plans to develop would enhance the ability to do that. And keeping it in those limited countries now are in fact how you limit, how you limit proliferation.
Brian Stempeck: Let's talk about Yucca Mountain a bit, because this is obviously you know very, related to this. So there's been some members of Congress who say that with the Energy Department pushing so hard in GNEP right now, with the amount of funding they're talking about, the amount of attention they're giving it, they're actually undercutting support for Yucca Mountain. Do you think that's accurate?
Steve Kraft: No. I don't think that's accurate. Everyone from DOE has said that Yucca Mountain is vital. Yucca Mountain is needed and I think when you study the fuel cycles that the DOE is talking about at the end of the day Brian, there is always going to be something that has to go in geologic disposal. Whether it's spent fuel that has to go there in the early years or some less toxic, high level waste decades from now, it has to go somewhere and that somewhere is Yucca Mountain.
Brian Stempeck: The Energy Department has also, has yet to release its legislation for Yucca Mountain to get it back on track. When are you expecting to see that and also what are you looking for in this bill?
Steve Kraft: Well, I can't handicap when a piece of legislation is going to get released or someone will introduce it. Clearly, everyone if I read the quotes properly yesterday, even secretary on down is frustrated that it hasn't gone over yet and we are too. It will eventually get there. What are we looking for? We have five major issues that we're looking for. One, is the federal government needs to live up to it's obligations to begin moving fuel off of our sites onto their site, one of their sites. Secondly, we want to see a continued strong commitment by the federal government to the Yucca Mountain project. Third, they need to fix that funding. The fact that we have a dedicated funding stream gets mixed up with all the other federal spending is just not right and it prevents the program from being properly funded and it's a big appropriations deal every single year. Third, is the artificial cap of 70,000 metric tons on the Yucca Mountain repository needs to simply be lifted and let science and engineering and licensing deal with what the right number is. And fifth, is the waste confidence situation. We need to have Congress declare as a matter of federal law and policy that the nation has confidence that you will have a waste disposal capability at some point in the future and clear that barrier to new plant.
Brian Stempeck: These are also a lot of priorities and these are very controversial with a lot of lawmakers in Nevada. What do you think is the chance of this actually going through this year? Senator DeManchi on the Senate Energy Committee says he doesn't really see this moving this year, it's a shortened year. We have the elections coming up in the fall. Is it really realistic to think you're going to get all that done?
Steve Kraft: Well, I would turn to members of Congress and your staff to answer that question. I'm not in a position to handicap their ability to get that fund.
Brian Stempeck: Are you willing to accept a limited bill? I mean if you only get two of the priorities that you listed of those five, is that something that the nuclear industry is willing to accept or do you need all five?
Steve Kraft: I, that's a good question Brian. I can't speak for the whole industry. I only know what the leadership has asked us to do so far. Whether or not there comes a time when a senator or house chairman says to industry, you know look I can only do this or that. The industry will deal with that at that time.
Brian Stempeck: One of the questions also of interest in this bill is the idea of interim storage at Yucca Mountain. Something, we've got a lot of kind of mixed reactions from the Energy Department on whether they're going to support this or not. What's kind of the latest you've heard and where do you see this going?
Steve Kraft: Well certainly if our first point is they need to move fuel right away and Yucca Mountain is not going to be available right away. We're clearly talking about some sort of storage facility to be available for that movement. Whether or not DOE has something explicit in the legislation we'll have to wait and see and then have to deal with it when it comes up. But yes, there has to be some storage capability somewhere.
Brian Stempeck: Interest of GNEP kind of tie into this a little bit, Congressman Barton who heads up the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he originally said that GNEP represents "a fundamental shift in nuclear waste policy without any warning to Congress." A lot of resistance to this plan. Why is the department moving forward with this right now? The administration is having a tough time on a lot of fronts, doesn't have a lot of political capital to spend. Why GNEP? Why now?
Steve Kraft: Well I can't speak for whether various members of Congress what they knew or didn't know but I'll tell you this. And I go back to my original answer. It's going to take decades to develop this technology. The technology is definitely going to be needed in the future. If you don't start now you're not going to have it developed in time. And that's why we support them going forward with it starting this year.
Brian Stempeck: You mentioned the idea of getting the waste confidences as part of the legislation that passes on Yucca Mountain. This is also part of building new reactors in the United States. If this is set back, how far away are we basically delaying any new reactors being built? And obviously Yucca right now they're saying isn't even starting construction for five years or so.
Steve Kraft: Right at the moment you're not seeing any delay like that. I think the companies that are the near term plants, the companies that have announced they're going to submit to combined operating license applications. Right now they're telling us that they're still moving forward. They're still making their plans. But you know what? There will, there will come a time when a company is faced with saying OK, we're beyond the initial work. We're, we've got our license and we know the license is going to come. We spent about $100 million dollars. It's now time for us to say, are we going to put the $2 billion on the table to buy that plant? At that time a company, through its board of directors will sit back and say, what are all the issues? Where are we on nuclear waste? Where are we on environmental requirements? Where are we on state relations? All the issues and they will take them in a holistic manner and see is it a "go" or "not a go". So it will be one of the issues that will be considered. Our view is that what's necessary is continued progress. You don't have to have Yucca Mountain operating but you have to have visible continued progress to help those companies see and their communities see that there will be a pathway forward to waste disposal in the future.
Brian Stempeck: All right Steve, we're out of time. Thanks so much for being here today.
Steve Kraft: Thank you so much.
Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.
[End of Audio]