WASHINGTON – President Bush on Saturday renewed his push for expansion of nuclear energy and sought support for plans to revive nuclear fuel reprocessing to deal with radioactive waste from commercial power plants.
"As America and other nations build more nuclear power plants we must work together to address two challenges," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "We must dispose of nuclear waste safely, and we must keep nuclear technology and material out of the hands of terrorist networks and terrorist states."
The administration has asked Congress for $250 million next fiscal year to accelerate a decade-long research program into reprocessing nuclear fuel, reducing the amount of reactor waste that eventually would have to be buried.
The United States abandoned nuclear fuel reprocessing in the 1970s because of nuclear proliferation concerns. Conventional fuel reprocessing requires the separation of pure plutonium, which can be easily transported and could be used in a weapon if obtained by terrorists.
Bush's plan envisions a new approach to reprocessing — one not yet fully demonstrated outside the laboratory — that would not result in the separation of pure plutonium and, therefore, its advocates maintain, poses less of a proliferation risk.
Nuclear power must play a growing role in meeting future energy needs not only in the United States, but globally, the president said. He said he envisions a system where the United States and other countries such as Russia, Britain and France would provide reactors and lend nuclear fuel to developing nations. Used fuel would be returned and recycled.
"This will allow us to produce more energy while dramatically reducing the amount of nuclear waste and eliminating the nuclear byproducts that unstable regimes and terrorists could use to make weapon," Bush said.
The reprocessing initiatives has been met with skepticism by some members of Congress and nuclear nonproliferation advocacy groups.
"We are taking enormous risks going down this path," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., told Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman earlier this week at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
While calling it "a well-intentioned program," Clinton questioned its cost and said its potential proliferation risks "seem to raise more dangers and questions than answers."
The Energy Department acknowledges that the $250 million sought by the administration is only a small down payment for the program. The department envisions spending $1.8 billion over the following three years and about $13 billion over 10 years to develop a demonstration project for reprocessing, including a new-generation "fast" reactor needed to burn up more of the fuel.
Clinton said some studies have put the cost of developing a nuclear reprocessing technology at $100 billion.
The new nuclear strategy is but one energy initiative that Bush plans to highlight in the coming week as he visits Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado to talk up programs and technologies aimed at developing alternative motor fuels and other renewable energy programs.
"The best way to meet our energy needs is through advanced technology," he said as the administration searches for ways to defuse growing public concerns about high energy prices.