Nuclear Fuel Cycle Options:

DOE Needs to Enhance Planning for Technology Assessment and Collaboration with Industry and Other Countries

GAO-12-70: Published: Oct 17, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2011.

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More demand for electricity and concerns about greenhouse gas emissions have increased interest in nuclear power, which does not rely on fossil fuels. However, concerns remain about the radioactive spent fuel that nuclear reactors generate. The Department of Energy (DOE) issued a research and development (R&D) plan to select nuclear fuel cycles and technologies, some of which reprocess spent fuel and recycle some nuclear material, such as plutonium. These fuel cycles may help reduce the generation of spent fuel and risks of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. GAO was asked to review (1) DOE's approach to selecting nuclear fuel cycles and technologies, (2) DOE's efforts to reduce proliferation and terrorism risks, and (3) selected countries' experiences in reprocessing and recycling spent fuel. GAO reviewed DOE's plan and met with officials from DOE, the nuclear industry, and France and the United Kingdom.

DOE's R&D plan relies on a systematic approach--that is, the use of scientific methods and engineering principles--to select and demonstrate nuclear fuel cycles and associated technologies. However, it does not explain the current readiness levels of the technologies associated with the fuel cycles and the estimated time and cost of further development; it also does not explain how DOE will collaborate with the nuclear industry and other countries experienced in nuclear R&D in achieving its goals. In particular: (1) In 2010, DOE screened 863 previously identified nuclear fuel cycles and technologies and grouped them into 266 fuel cycles for further exploration. Independent reviewers found this screening process useful and recommended changes that DOE officials stated they would act on. (2) DOE's R&D plan states that it is necessary to assess the readiness levels of technologies associated with nuclear fuel cycles. However, neither the plan nor the screening process describe the current readiness levels of all critical technologies or the time or estimated costs for further development. As GAO has reported, assessing the readiness of technology is a best practice to help control schedule and costs. (3) DOE's R&D plan states the importance of collaborating with the nuclear industry--the ultimate user of any fuel cycle and technologies that are developed--and DOE continues to get industry advice. However, the plan does not include a strategy for long-term collaboration with industry, without which DOE cannot be assured that the nuclear industry will accept and use the fuel cycles and technologies that the department may develop. (4) DOE has agreements with other countries that provide collaborative opportunities to share research results and leverage DOE's R&D efforts, such as using the countries' research facilities. However, the plan does not explain how DOE will use these agreements to advance its R&D goals. As stated in DOE's R&D plan, the Office of Nuclear Energy has efforts under way to minimize proliferation and terrorism risks associated with nuclear power, but faces challenges. These challenges include developing reliable and cost-effective fuel cycles while minimizing the attractiveness to potential adversaries of radioactive materials resulting from these cycles. NNSA is also working on these issues, and the two agencies have worked together informally to avoid duplication and overlap but do not have a formal mechanism to collaborate on future efforts, which can help agencies strengthen their commitment to work collaboratively by clarifying who will lead or participate in which activities and how decisions will be made. GAO reviewed France's and the United Kingdom's decades of experiences in developing and operating reprocessing and recycling infrastructures. These experiences can provide some insights into the decisions DOE may need to make in selecting nuclear fuel cycles and technologies. For example, reprocessing and recycling is likely to reduce the amount of space needed for a nuclear waste repository because some of the radioactive materials are reused, but the amount of this reduction would depend on how much of the radioactive materials that are reused might ultimately require disposal in such a repository. GAO recommends that DOE revise its plan to include the current readiness levels of fuel cycle technologies and the estimated time and cost to develop them, include a strategy for long-term collaboration with the nuclear industry, and specify how DOE will use international agreements to advance its efforts. GAO also recommends that DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) complete a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to avoid duplication and overlap of efforts. DOE agreed with the first three recommendations and did not rule out the future use of a MOU. GAO continues to believe that this formal collaboration mechanism is needed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Overall, DOE did not address this recommendation because it stated in May 2016 that there has not been an update to NE's 2010 Roadmap. In December 2012, DOE provided an update on how it addressed each of the three parts of our recommendation. For the first part of the recommendation, DOE stated in December 2012 that it developed in December 2011 a charter that contained evaluation and screening criteria for fuel cycle options. This charter also charged the Office of Fuel Cycle Technologies with conducting an evaluation and screening of nuclear fuel cycle options. DOE stated that the evaluation and screening will be completed by December 2013 and a final report will be issued by March 2014. In April 2016, we asked DOE for these documents and for documentation containing the current readiness of all the fuel cycle options and associated technologies under consideration and the estimated time and cost to further develop them. DOE only provided us with the December 2011 document listing the evaluation criteria. For the second part of the recommendation, DOE stated that it was incorporating detailed plans regarding collaboration with the nuclear industry into its planning efforts as they evolve. DOE stated that it made three awards to industry-led teams in September 2012. These teams were to work through FY 2013 and 2014 in collaboration with DOE to advance the accident tolerant fuel development program. The program was also collaborating with industry in a significant way in the newly-established Nuclear Fuel Storage and Transportation Planning Project. In April 2016, we asked DOE if it has developed any long-term plans for working with the industry, in addition to the short-term projects mentioned in 2012. For the third part of the recommendation, DOE stated in December 2012 that it is incorporating detailed plans regarding international collaboration into its planning efforts as they evolve. It also said that the program had been meeting with the Russian Federation to plan topics for R&D collaborations in anticipation of the approval of a government-to-government agreement. The program had also re-engaged with Japan to explore mutually beneficially R&D following the Fukushima accident. DOE was also ramping up collaborative R&D with China following a recent visit by the Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, and it continued to work with the NE Office of International Nuclear Energy Policy and Cooperation on the emerging international R&D collaborations described above and on other existing R&D collaborations (e.g., with France and the Republic of Korea). In April 2016, we asked DOE if it could provide more information in addition to these ad-hoc efforts, on what has DOE done to include a long-term strategy and specify potential international resources that could be used in the long-term for its fuel cycle R&D and how DOE formalized this process by including it in its R&D plan. We provided DOE with four months to respond to our questions and request for documentation, but in August 2016, DOE stated that it cannot find any documentation supporting this recommendation and DOE did not answer any of our specific questions.

    Recommendation: For the Office of Nuclear Energy to reach its goal of selecting sustainable nuclear fuel cycles and associated technologies by 2020 and demonstrating them by 2050, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Nuclear Energy to revise the R&D plan to (1) include the current readiness levels of the technologies associated with the fuel cycle options being considered and the estimated time and cost for developing these technologies in relationship to the R&D plan's schedules and goals; (2) include a strategy for sustaining long-term collaboration with the nuclear industry, including a formal mechanism that clarifies the role industry will have at critical points in selecting fuel cycle options and associated technologies; and (3) specify how DOE will use collaborative agreements with other countries to advance its R&D efforts and use available facilities and expertise in these other countries to more efficiently and effectively meet its R&D goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In September 2012, DOE stated that a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was executed on April 2, 2012 called "Concerning Research and Development Cooperation in a Strategic Partnership to Enhance National Security and to Understand and Minimize Proliferation and Terrorism Risks of Nuclear Energy." According to DOE, NE and NNSA agreed to coordinate their R&D programs, provide access to findings, maximize leverage, and reduce the potential for conflict or overlap. DOE also stated that the MOU called for a senior management coordination group to meet at least monthly to exchange information, assess progress, and discuss evolving issues. In April 2016, we asked DOE for a copy of this MOU, but in August 2016 DOE told us that neither NE or NNSA could locate a copy of the MOU.

    Recommendation: For the Office of Nuclear Energy to reach its goal of selecting sustainable nuclear fuel cycles and associated technologies by 2020 and demonstrating them by 2050, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Nuclear Energy to complete a memorandum of understanding with NNSA to help ensure that DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy and NNSA coordinate their work to avoid overlap and duplication in their efforts to minimize proliferation and terrorism risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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