Nonproliferation proponents call on Biden to oppose SHINE's proposed recycling plant

April 8, 2024, 3:01PMRadwaste Solutions

A group of 29 nonproliferation supporters sent a letter to President Biden asking that he withhold federal support for a proposed pilot plant for recycling spent nuclear fuel to be built by the Wisconsin-based fusion tech company SHINE Technologies. The experts further asked that Biden “discourage” the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from licensing the plant, claiming it would extract enough weapons-grade plutonium to build 100 atomic bombs a year.

“The facility would violate the Biden administration’s own nuclear security policy, as enunciated last year in [National Security Memorandum 19], and break a half-century U.S. abstention from civilian reprocessing, which was initiated by the federal government due to concerns about the proliferation danger of this technology,” the letter states.

Signatories of the letter, dated April 4, include former NRC commissioners Allison Macfarlane and Peter Bradford, along with officials who served under four different U.S. presidents.

Proliferation resistance: SHINE announced in February that it is working with Orano on the development of a facility capable of recycling 100 metric tons of spent fuel from light water reactors. The company said it hoped to have the pilot plant operational by the early 2030s.

The company said that its recycling process, a modified version of the plutonium uranium reduction extraction (PUREX) liquid-liquid separation process called codecontamination, or CoDCon, reduces the risk of proliferation by keeping the plutonium mixed with uranium.

In a statement to Nuclear Newswire, SHINE said, “Our technology is designed to create a process that improves global safety, including proliferation resistance. The planned process will unlock a valuable fuel source for clean energy production that is unusable for nuclear weapons. Further, responsible recycling of spent fuel is the only known way to actually eliminate plutonium that has already been generated in fission reactors.”

The company added that it was engaged with the U.S. technical nonproliferation community to conduct a thorough proliferation risk assessment. “We are committed to nuclear security, echoing the priorities of the Biden administration and previous administrations,” SHINE said.

National Academies study: Claiming that SHINE’s process still carries proliferation risks, the experts quote a U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report that stated, “Fuel cycles involving reprocessing and separation of fissile material that could be weapons usable pose greater proliferation and terrorism risks.” That report, Merits and Viability of Different Nuclear Fuel Cycles and Technology Options and the Waste Aspects of Advanced Nuclear Reactors, was published in 2023.

Senior policy fellow at Argonne National Laboratory and American Nuclear Society member Paul Dickman, who served on the committee that wrote the report, argued that the report’s findings need to be put into context.

“The National Academies report does point out that any fuel cycle that separates fissile materials do pose greater proliferation risks,” he said. “But it also states that, ‘All of the advanced reactor fuel cycles will require rigorous measures for safeguards and security commensurate with the potential risks they pose.’”

Dickman added that any reprocessing technology would require specific safeguard technologies to meet the International Atomic Energy Agency’s goal of timely detection. “Without comment on the merits of the SHINE technology, it would not be possible to license their technology unless it met a rigorous safeguards license review.”

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