Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2022
By Bob Mayberry
The U.S. and Germany have agreed to export highly radioactive waste fuel from the Jülich Research Center in Germany to the U.S. Energy Department’s Savannah River Site (SRS) in Aiken, South Carolina. Critics note that the transfer would appear to violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and has been put on hold.
According to the watchdog group SRS Watch, the Jülicher Nuclear Waste Management Company (JEN), located near the German-Dutch border, has large quantities of radioactive graphite pebbles that fueled Germany’s now defunct gas-cooled reactors. SRS originally agreed to import and process, and ultimately dump the German waste fuel at the SRS — and perhaps elsewhere in the U.S. However, objections raised by SRS Watch, and by German colleagues opposed to the export, resulted in new agreements between the SRS and JEN to commercialize the processing of irradiated graphite fuel, which includes both low- and highly enriched uranium.
These agreements also stand in violation of the nuclear weapons non-proliferation policies under the 1970 NPT, which requires the production of risk assessments before any processing of waste fuel. Tom Clements, a director of SRS Watch who first brought the secret deal to light, reports that any shipping of Germany’s waste reactor fuel would also be illegal under German law.
The DOE has refused to prepare such assessments, claiming that the graphite fuel poses no weapons proliferation risk.
According to Reuters, Germany agreed in 2014 to pay $10 million to the U.S. to outsource the waste fuel to SRS. But former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley threatened to fine the DOE up to $100 million a year for the delay in cleaning up the site’s colossal Cold War radioactive waste problems.
Consequently, the U.S.-German agreement has been delayed, and the parties have shifted their focus to commercializing the processing of the waste. However, techniques for removing highly enriched uranium from this aged and highly radioactive “pebble bed” experimental fuel have still not been developed.