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The Department of Energy is quietly working on a plan for the future of nuclear power. The project is called GNEI, an acronym for Global Nuclear Energy Initiative. People who've been briefed on GNEI say it amounts to a grand international vision for nuclear power, but the idea at the core of the plan is raising security concerns. That idea is to recycle nuclear waste into fuel so it can be used again. The catch is that the fuel could also be used directly in a bomb. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


The Department of Energy won't answer questions about GNEI, won't say whether it even exists. But the man in the Senate who is usually at the center of any discussion on nuclear energy is eagerly waiting to hear the details: Senator Pete Domenici, Republican from New Mexico.

Senator PETE DOMENICI (Republican, New Mexico): Well, if we're speaking of the not-yet-publicly-disclosed White House proposal, which I understand is serious--the Energy Department has done a lot of hard work on it; I know that much--what I think about it is it ought to get put on the table and ought to get put on the table soon.

KESTENBAUM: The general outlines of GNEI were reported by the trade publication The Energy Daily earlier this year, and people who've been briefed on the proposal confirmed the details to NPR. The basic idea is an old one: Take fuel that has been used in nuclear power plants and recycle or reprocess it so it can be used again. Supporters say it's a good idea because one day the world will run out of uranium for fuel. And there's another potential advantage. Reprocessing can vastly reduce the amount of long-lived nuclear waste, the kind that would otherwise have to be stored in a repository for hundreds of thousands of years. Burt Richter is a physicist at Stanford University, who advises the Department of Energy.

Dr. BURT RICHTER (Stanford University): In principle, you can transmute all the bad stuff, so that you only have to isolate the stuff going into a repository for something on the order of a thousand years. I like to call it for less than a lifetime of the pyramids. We know how to do that. We know how to do that reliably, and we don't have to make all sorts of estimates about how we can protect this stuff for a million years. That's a big advantage.

KESTENBAUM: There are a lot of caveats here. Getting rid of the long-lived radioactive atoms isn't easy. One idea requires a special kind of reactor called a fast spectrum or breeder reactor to burn them up. Research has been done on these reactors, but technical obstacles remain. Also, reprocessing will likely raise the cost of electricity from nuclear power, maybe by just a few percent, but the electrical utilities aren't terribly excited about it. And perhaps the biggest concern is that the recycled fuel includes weapons-grade plutonium. Frank von Hippel is a physicist and nuclear policy expert at Princeton University. He recently met with Energy Department officials to explain his concerns.

Mr. FRANK VON HIPPEL (Princeton University): My main objection to reprocessing is that you separate out plutonium, which can be directly used to make a nuclear weapon. Making more material accessible in that way is creating a tremendous security risk. The US has for 30 years basically said, `We don't do it. You don't need to do it, either.' And that's been tremendously successful in preventing additional countries from reprocessing.

KESTENBAUM: In the early 1970s, reprocessing was seen as the way of the future. President Carter ended the program, citing proliferation concerns. But today there is fresh political motivation. Nuclear waste is piling up at reactors around the country. Senator Domenici has long supported plans to send that waste to a repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but now he says the US needs to consider other options.

Sen. DOMENICI: Yucca Mountain started out as something that everybody thought could, you know, stay on time, stay within budget, get done. Turns out none of that's true. It's not on time; we still haven't cleared some of the worst hurdles. So we have to stick with it. What role it will inevitably play is still undetermined, in my opinion.

KESTENBAUM: Reprocessing, on the other hand, does not come with the heavy political baggage of a nuclear waste dump. No one wants nuclear waste permanently in their state, but what is the state just had to take nuclear waste temporarily? They'd get billions of dollars to build a plant to reprocess fuel and hundreds of jobs.

Sen. DOMENICI: That's a mighty big economic boost. We will certainly get some takers, in my opinion, without a doubt.

KESTENBAUM: The US could eventually reprocess fuel for other countries or send its used fuel to be reprocessed abroad. France already has a facility. GNEI is taking a global look at reprocessing, with an eye toward keeping it out of the wrong hands. One idea would be for trusted countries that already have nuclear weapons to do the reprocessing. Policy experts say they expect GNEI will be part of next year's budget and could make an appearance in the president's upcoming State of the Union address. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

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