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U.S. Energy Secretary defends possible German nuke waste imports

By Harriet McLeod

AIKEN South Carolina (Reuters) - U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Monday defended his agency's controversial move to consider processing spent nuclear fuel from Germany at South Carolina's Savannah River Site nuclear facility, saying the proposal is consistent with U.S. efforts to secure highly enriched uranium across the globe.

The United States has for years accepted spent fuel from research reactors in various countries that was produced with uranium of U.S. origin as a part of U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy and treaties.

Receiving the German spent fuel would be "very much in line with our mission of removing the global danger of nuclear weapons material," Moniz told reporters before a visit to the South Carolina nuclear facility.

The decision on whether to accept the German fuel is still under discussion, he said.

Moniz said Berlin approached the United States and would bear the full expense for the planning and execution of a program to reprocess the waste. The German government has also agreed to pay the United States $10 million so far, including funds for research and environmental studies.

Critics have questioned whether the South Carolina site, operated by the Department of Energy, should accept more highly radioactive material when it has no final resting place for what is already there.

The Obama administration scrapped plans to dispose of U.S. nuclear waste, currently stored at locations across the country, at the remote Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

"What we don't want is for this site to remain a dumping ground," said South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who invited Moniz to tour the plant with U.S. senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott. "Do we take on now German waste when there is no end game?"

Tom Clements, director of the public-interest group Savannah River Site Watch, said he planned to ask Moniz to halt plans to import the high-level waste that could end up "stranded" at the South Carolina facility.

Moniz said the nation has a legal and moral obligation to clean up U.S. nuclear waste sites, but added that a relatively small amount of waste would result from the processing of the German spent fuel.

South Carolina has threatened the federal government that it will call for obligated fines of up to $100 million a year for the delay in cleaning up its nuclear waste in the state.

Consisting of about 900 kilograms of highly enriched uranium encased in graphite spheres, the German spent fuel was part of a research project in Germany to develop a new kind of high-temperature gas reactor.

The technique for removing the highly enriched uranium from this form of spent fuel has not been developed. 

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod. Additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe. Editing by Ros Krasny and Andre Grenon)

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