GNEP Proposal Raises Questions Regarding Nuclear Proliferation

GNEP Proposal Raises Questions Regarding Nuclear Proliferation

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) is a recent Department of Energy proposal to expand nuclear energy use world-wide and manage the waste disposal. This proposal will resurrect dangerous reprocessing and transmutation technologies. Under this program, the U.S. would reprocess its own spent nuclear fuel, as well as fuel from other countries.

Reprocessing technology was originally developed to separate plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. Later, when it was believed that global uranium supplies were running out, different plutonium fuel mixes were developed. However, due to high prices, plutonium fuel never caught on. Worldwide, there is about 250 metric tons of separated plutonium, or the equivalent of 30,000 nuclear bombs.

The United States halted all reprocessing in 1974 when India detonated a nuclear bomb built from reprocessed plutonium. The technology they used was provided by the United States. Reprocessing requires large volumes of water. This water is irradiated and becomes high-level liquid waste. Currently, over 100 million gallons of high-level liquid radioactive waste sit in leaking tanks in Washington State, Idaho, and South Carolina. At these sites, the tanks threaten the Columbia River, the Snake River, and the Savannah River. Over three decades later, DOE is still struggling to deal with the consequences of past reprocessing. Future reprocessing will only add to the problem. These past experiences with reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel make it clear that reprocessing is not a viable option.

The GNEP proposal claims to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, both uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, which will both be expanded under GNEP, have applications in the generation of nuclear weapons. Under GNEP, the U.S. proposes that nations that possess advanced nuclear programs supply nuclear fuel services to countries. In exchange those countries will agree to refrain from pursuing their own technology to manufacture nuclear fuel. In addition, many question the effectiveness of DOE’s proliferation resistant technology. DOE proposes to develop reprocessing technology, called UREX Plus. The technology will not separate pure plutonium, but rather plutonium mixed with other long-lived radionuclides, specifically neptunium. This technology is still in development. In the meantime, DOE proposes to develop fuel made of plutonium and uranium which would not contain other radionuclides. Opponents of GNEP point out that this technology will not provide any additional safeguards against proliferation. Reprocessed fuel is just as great of a threat for proliferation as regular fuel.

Three places in New Mexico are being considered as key sites for GNEP. With two national laboratories and the only underground weapons waste disposal site in the country, New Mexicans already bear a disproportionate burden of our country’s nuclear program. As required by the National Environmental Policy Act, DOE will hold scoping hearings to receive input from the public regarding this proposal. Four scoping meetings will be held in New Mexico in late February: in Hobbs, on the evening of Monday February 26. In Carlsbad on the morning of Tuesday, February 27th. In Roswell on the evening of Tuesday, February 27th. And in Los Alamos on the evening of Thursday, March 1st.

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