DOE looks at enviro aspects of taking back spent nuclear fuel from Germany

The U.S. Department of Energy on Jan. 15 issued a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) that evaluates the receipt, storage, processing and disposition of certain spent nuclear fuel from a research and development program of the Federal Republic of Germany.

DOE is considering the feasibility of accepting this spent nuclear fuel containing U.S.-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU) at DOE’s Savannah River Site (SRS) for processing and disposition. The U.S. provided the HEU to Germany between 1965 and 1988. DOE and Germany have signed a Statement of Intent to cooperate in conducting preparatory work necessary to support DOE’s consideration of the proposed use of SRS facilities for these activities.

If DOE and Germany decide to proceed with the proposed action, the German government would be responsible for transporting the spent nuclear fuel from storage in Germany to the United States, at which point the United States would take responsibility for the spent fuel. The Statement of Intent specifies that Forschungszentrum Julich, an interdisciplinary research center funded primarily by the German government, is bearing the cost of the preparatory phase – feasibility studies and National Environmental Policy Act analysis – and if there is a decision to proceed with the project, would also bear the costs associated with acceptance, processing, and disposition of the spent nuclear fuel.

This spent nuclear fuel was irradiated in two German reactors that operated as part of Germany’s research and development program for pebble bed, high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor technology, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Versuchsreaktor (AVR), which operated from 1967 to 1988; and the Thorium High Temperature Reactor-300 (THTR), which operated from 1983 to 1989. The AVR spent nuclear fuel has been stored in Jülich, Germany, and the THTR spent nuclear fuel has been stored in Ahaus, Germany, since the reactors were shut down and defueled.

This spent fuel is in the form of small graphite (carbon) spheres, referred to as “pebbles.” There are approximately one million pebbles currently in storage in 455 CASTOR casks. The pebbles contain varying quantities of uranium and thorium, with uranium enrichments up to 81%.

Prior to irradiation, the fuel contained approximately 900 kilograms (1,980 pounds) of HEU provided by the United States. As a result of irradiation and decay, the spent nuclear fuel also contains actinides, fission products, and other radioactive isotopes.

The United States has a policy objective to reduce, and eventually to eliminate, HEU from civil commerce. In February 2012, the German government approached DOE about the possibility of the United States accepting the spent nuclear fuel for storage and disposition. As a result of discussions, Germany funded Savannah River National Laboratory to conduct research that would lead to a method to separate the fuel kernels from the graphite matrix, the first step in processing this fuel. DOE agreed to consider Germany’s request because

  • the spent fuel contains U.S.-origin HEU;
  • success of the above-mentioned research on a laboratory scale;
  • SRS expertise in nuclear engineering and the management of nuclear materials; and
  • availability of hardened SRS facilities that could be used as is or modified to process and disposition this type of spent nuclear fuel.

The facilities and capabilities proposed for processing this spent nuclear fuel are unique to DOE and SRS. H-Canyon, which began operating in 1955, is the only hardened nuclear chemical separations plant still in operation in the United States. H-Canyon continues to be used to separate and recover uranium from spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive materials for reuse and to prepare the residuals for disposal through the SRS Liquid Nuclear Waste Facilities.

If the current feasibility studies show adequate promise, and DOE and Germany decide to proceed with the project, the German government would work with DOE to transport spent nuclear fuel in chartered ships across the Atlantic Ocean to Joint Base Charleston-Weapons Station near Charleston, South Carolina. From there, the casks would be transported to SRS on dedicated trains.

The public comment period on this draft EA ends on March 7. DOE will also hold a Feb. 4 public meeting on it at the North Augusta Community Center in North Augusta, South Carolina.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.