By George Lobsenz

The White House has proposed barring Energy Department research on fast reactor recycling of nuclear waste and technical support for licensing of small, modular light-water reactors, drawing protests from Energy Secretary Steven Chu that such prohibitions will have broad adverse effects, including hurting the U.S. nuclear industry’s renaissance; crimping U.S. ability to influence other countries’ fast reactor designs to address proliferation concerns; and taking away nuclear waste disposal options that might be considered by the administration’s planned blue-ribbon panel on alternatives to the Yucca Mountain repository.

The policy dispute inside the Obama administration was revealed in a Dec. 22 letter from Chu to Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), commenting on proposals in the OMB “passback” budget plan sent to DoE late last year. The passback responded to initial DoE budget requests for fiscal year 2011.

In the letter, obtained by sister publication The Energy Daily, Chu said he “strongly disagree[s] with the policy direction [proposed by OMB] concerning allowable nuclear energy R&D activities.”

Chu added: “The OMB [passback] prohibits fast reactor R&D within the [nuclear] fuel cycle R&D program; prohibits light-water licensing and manufacturing support activities associated with small/modular reactors; and directs that the reactor enabling technologies program be renamed ‘advanced concepts’ and be entirely run as an investigator-initiated, competitive process.”

Chu’s letter did not explain the rationale for OMB’s proposed nuclear R&D restrictions, which are surprising on several fronts and which appear likely to harden perceptions among industry officials and others that the administration is fundamentally anti-nuclear.

In particular, OMB’s opposition to letting DoE help U.S. nuclear vendors develop and license small, modular light-water reactors runs directly counter to broad bipartisan backing for such reactors as a promising area for rebirth of the U.S. nuclear industry and near-term deployment of emissions-free nuclear generation. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is among lawmakers who recently introduced legislation to boost development of small, modular reactors, most of which use existing light-water cooling technology and typically are limited to 50 megawatts in generating capacity. Their smaller size make them easier to tie into the grid and attractive for varied uses, such as powering military bases and remote villages.

The administration’s opposition to fast reactor R&D likely reflects proliferation concerns related to their ability to produce weapons-usable plutonium. However, OMB’s stance would halt U.S. research at a time when other major nuclear countries, such as France, Japan and Russia, are charging ahead with fast reactor design and development.

And on perhaps the most politically sensitive issue, Chu said barring fast reactor R&D would hamstring efforts by DoE–and thus by the administration’s planned blue-ribbon nuclear waste panel–to examine the potential of “modified-open fuel cycles” to help get rid of spent reactor fuel that had been destined for disposal in Yucca Mountain.

Experts say fast reactors are needed to efficiently burn recycled nuclear fuel and destroy high-level radioactive materials that otherwise would need deep geologic disposal. A “closed” fuel cycle would recycle all spent nuclear fuel in fast reactors; a modified-open fuel cycle using fast reactors would destroy some materials, leaving a reduced amount of waste for disposal.

In his letter to OMB, Chu complained that by barring fast reactor research, the White House would effectively leave the nation with only the existing “once-through” fuel cycle, in which reactor fuel is used once and then buried in a deep geologic repository such as Yucca Mountain, which the administration says is unsuitable for waste disposal and will be terminated. Sticking with the once-through fuel cycle would mean the U.S. government would have to site another underground repository such as the Yucca facility.

“Prohibiting research and development on fast reactors under the fuel cycle research and development budget line effectively selects the once-through fuel cycle as the only fuel cycle to be pursued in the United States,” Chu told Orszag.

“The closed fuel cycle cannot be implemented without a fast neutron spectrum. Further, many if not most of the options being considered for the modified open fuel cycle would require a fast spectrum. Other than a fast reactor, the only options for achieving a fast spectrum would be to use particle accelerators or fusion-fission hybrids, both of which are not likely to be cost-effective.”

Chu noted that closed or modified-open fuel cycles would not be deployed for decades, but said research is needed now to provide options for future policymakers.

And while the administration has pledged that its blue-ribbon panel will consider all alternatives to Yucca Mountain, Chu said of the OMB proposal: “[T]his language prohibition effectively removes an entire set of options from consideration by the blue-ribbon commission as it considers the back end of the fuel cycle.” Chu said a ban on U.S. fast reactor research was also unrealistic and unwise in that other nations are pursuing the technology, which poses clear proliferation risks due to its ability to “breed” plutonium.

“Several countries have fast reactors under construction for operation in the next two years, while France and Japan are currently designing their next fast reactors,” Chu said.

“If the United States does not have a broad fast reactor research program (in addition to fast small/modular reactors), we will have no opportunity to influence design of these foreign reactors from a vital national security perspective such as proliferation resistance.”

On small, modular reactors, Chu suggested OMB’s proposal would choke off one of the best avenues for a renaissance of the U.S. nuclear industry.

OMB’s plan, he said, “prohibits all work on light-water…small, modular reactors, which is the only category of small, modular reactors capable of near-term deployment. These reactors offer the greatest potential to recreate a domestic nuclear industry wherein the United States contributes to the entire supply chain and regains a share of global leadership in one aspect of nuclear power.”

Further, Chu said those small reactors “offer immense potential benefits to domestic energy supply.”

Chu added that with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission already loaded down with resource-intensive licensing reviews of big new reactors planned by electric utilities, DoE was prepared to help review the large number of small, modular reactor designs to “select the best candidates for [NRC] license review.

“Without [DoE] licensing assistance leading to design certification, U.S. designs will not be utilized,” Chu said. “Furthermore, if these reactors are to compete, their U.S. manufacturing and supply chain must be optimized.

“To fully realize the potential of light-water small, modular reactor designs, the language prohibiting [DoE] licensing work on light-water reactor small, modular reactors must be removed, as well as prohibitions on work with industry to enhance manufacturing and construction techniques.”

Chu also noted that industry would be required to help finance the DoE technical assistance, saying: “All work on light-water small, modular reactors, both to support licensing and manufacturing, will require cost share from industry.”

On the issue of DoE’s proposed “reactor enabling technologies” program, Chu said OMB wanted to rename the program as “advanced reactor concepts.” Chu objected to the name change, saying it did not accurately describe the intent of the program, which he said was to focus on “cross-cutting R&D activities that are relevant to multiple reactor designs.”