Nuclear Nonproliferation:

Concerns With U.S. Delays in Accepting Foreign Research Reactors' Spent Fuel

RCED-94-119: Published: Mar 25, 1994. Publicly Released: Apr 25, 1994.

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GAO provided information on U.S. efforts to convert foreign research reactors from highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU) and to consolidate spent fuel, focusing on the: (1) effects of delays in renewing the Off-Site Fuels Policy on U.S. nonproliferation goals and programs; (2) Department of Energy's (DOE) efforts to renew the fuels policy; and (3) price to be charged to foreign reactor operators for DOE activities in taking back spent fuel.

GAO found that: (1) delays in taking back spent fuel negatively affect U.S. nonproliferation goals; (2) failure to renew the fuels policy could cause some reactors to revert to HEU fuel; (3) DOE does not require U.S. research reactors to convert to LEU; (4) two foreign research reactors had their spent HEU fuel reprocessed because the United States did not take back their fuel; (5) an agreement between the United States and the European Atomic Energy Community permits reprocessing of fuels of U.S. origin; (6) DOE failure to renew its fuels policy could negatively affect the 1995 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty negotiations; (7) DOE plans to renew its fuels policy as soon as it can address the environmental impacts of transporting and storing spent fuel, storing the spent fuel in existing storage space at the Savannah River Site, building new storage units at existing DOE facilities, and charging foreign reactor operators for accepting, storing, and disposing of spent fuel in a U.S. repository; and (8) foreign research reactor operators will likely look for alternative options for their spent fuel if DOE fees are too costly.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE agrees with this recommendation and is proceeding accordingly. The decision on the number of spent fuel elements necessary to be accepted from the foreign research reactors currently nearing the limits of their spent fuel storage needs was made following an on-site DOE assessment of each reactor to determine first-hand their spent fuel storage needs. The final Environmental Assessment of Urgent-Relief Acceptance of Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel and the associated Finding of No Significant Impact were issued on April 22, 1994. DOE has decided to accept 409 fuel elements.

    Recommendation: To ensure that operators of foreign research reactors are not forced to reprocess spent fuel of U.S. origin or shut down reactors as a result of the lapse of the Off-Site Fuels Policy, the Secretary of Energy should accept the minimum amount of spent fuel from the foreign research reactors that DOE has determined will constitute storage crises in the near term.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE is proceeding on schedule to complete the Environmental Impact Statement and decide whether to adopt and implement the broader spent fuel acceptance policy within a time period that circumvents future crises. A new spent fuel acceptance policy will not be adopted or implemented until all environmental requirements have been completed. A draft Environmental Impact Statement was planned to be issued by December 1994 and the final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision is planned to be issued by December 1995.

    Recommendation: To minimize the civilian use and commerce of highly enriched uranium, the Secretary of Energy should take immediate action to complete all environmental requirements to renew the Off-Site Fuels Policy and begin accepting the spent fuel within a time period that circumvents future crisis situations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE agrees with this recommendation and will implement it. The fee to be charged for urgent-relief acceptance of the spent fuel will consider the cost burden. The acceptance fee will be reconsidered as part of the process of completing the Environmental Impact Statement.

    Recommendation: To secure the return of the maximum amount of spent highly enriched uranium fuel, the Secretary of Energy should assess the operators of foreign research reactors a charge for returned spent fuel that balances the need to minimize the cost burden on the United States with the reactor operators' need for a reasonable, affordable charge.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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